By Ann Thelen
Iowa has seen its fair share of weather-related disasters, including 25 Federal Emergency Management Agency declared disasters in the past 10 years. From flooding to tornadoes to ice storms, the heart of the Midwest isn’t immune from situations that take a toll on electric power infrastructure.
When there’s a disaster or significant power outage, Iowa’s electric cooperatives embody the co-op principle of “Cooperation Among Cooperatives.” It’s a foundational part of a members-first philosophy in ensuring safe, affordable and reliable power delivery. When someone is in need, co-op employees and directors step up to help. Whether it’s helping a neighboring co-op or going across state lines as part of a mutual aid effort, Iowa co-ops have a long history of coming forward to serve members.
Helping after a hurricane
On the heels of the destruction the summer derecho caused in our state, linemen from Iowa’s electric cooperatives didn’t waver in their commitment to assist other co-op members when another massive storm hit.
On Aug. 27, Hurricane Laura – a Category 4 hurricane – made landfall in the Gulf Region and knocked out electricity to more than 1 million people. Beauregard Electric Cooperative (BECi) in DeRidder, Louisiana, was hit incredibly hard. The hurricane left 43,000 BECi members in the dark, and due to the massive damage, 13,000 members were still without power three weeks after the storm.
That’s when 21 linemen from seven of Iowa’s electric cooperatives answered the call for mutual aid and headed south to Louisiana on Sept. 18 for two weeks. When a cooperative provides aid in these situations, the impacted co-op reimburses for the services.
Dillon Clark and Aaron Nippert, linemen from Harlan-based Nishnabotna Valley REC, aren’t strangers to tough working conditions. Nippert volunteered when Category 5 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Clark has helped other states and most recently helped other Iowa co-ops restore power after the derecho.
“By the time we arrived, the co-op members had already been without power for three weeks. A lot of the debris had been removed, so we could drive our vehicles to the job sites,” Nippert says.
He adds, however, that five consecutive days of rain from Tropical Storm Beta shortly after the Iowa crews arrived contributed to difficult working conditions. Large tents at Georgia Pacific Lumber served as the camp for the crews, and the ground was saturated. The tents were situated on plastic grates on the ground. Because the Louisiana soil there doesn’t drain well, the rain quickly pools and sits. Fire ants and other insects contributed to uncomfortable living conditions.
“With another approaching storm, we were all moved to the local airport, which was all on a hard surface. It made the temporary living conditions much better,” Clark says. “The members were initially told they would be without power for two months, so they were really happy when power was restored after a month.”
Kurt Lowenberg, line foreman with Access Energy Cooperative in Mount Pleasant, has also been on the ground restoring power following a hurricane.
“It’s gratifying to help others. When your own co-op and member-consumers are going through a major outage situation, we know how grateful we are to receive the mutual aid assistance,” Lowenberg says. “The residents made signs thanking us and gave us goodie bags with soda, water and candy bars.”
With the potential spread of COVID-19 a concern, the lineworkers had regular temperature checks before meals, and cots and tables were spread out to facilitate a degree of social distancing. The crew enjoyed a variety of traditional Louisiana food, including delicious Cajun dishes.
“Where we worked, a lot of people had poor living conditions, yet they were so thankful we were there to help,” says Jared Howard, a foreman with Anamosa-based Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative. Howard has also worked in hurricane- and storm-impacted regions in Iowa and the U.S.
“Any of those people would have given us the shirt off their back if we would have needed it. When the derecho hit our co-op’s service territory, my home was out of power for three days. That was long enough for me, and I can’t imagine being out of power for a month.”
“Cooperation Among Cooperatives” – it’s not just a tagline or phrase. It’s a promise co-op member-consumers can always count on, day in and day out.
Iowa cooperatives and linemen providing power restoration aid to Louisiana
Access Energy Cooperative
Chariton Valley Electric Cooperative
Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative
Maquoketa Valley Electric Cooperative
Midland Power Cooperative
Nishnabotna Valley Rural Electric Cooperative
Prairie Energy Cooperative
Ann Thelen is the editor of Living with Energy in Iowa.