In his 36-year co-op career, Dave Zaug came to consider holiday storm restoration a part of the job. So when storms hit on Christmas 2016, just days before his retirement, Zaug wasn’t surprised.
“I joined management on a storm and it looks like I’m going out on one,” said Zaug, 62, who spent the last 10 years as distribution system manager for Codington-Clark Electric Cooperative in Watertown, South Dakota.
His first top assignment was storm response following massive outages on Thanksgiving weekend in 2006. “We lost 1,100 poles in that storm,” he recalled. “While this one wasn’t nearly as bad, for South Dakota, this was far more widespread.”
The Christmas day storm was serious enough to cancel his holiday plans with family, despite his pending retirement on Jan. 3.
“We had ice on lines about as big around a two-liter [soda] pop bottle and winds were kicking up enough to bring down lines all around us,” said Zaug. “We lost at least 175 poles.”
With eight of nine substations dead, 2,000-plus members out, and just seven linemen on his roster—three of whom were out of the area—Zaug started making calls.
“The three young linemen told me ‘that’s my job,’ got back as soon as they could and headed out to work,” said Zaug. “Their dedication was there.”
More than 23,000 members of at least 20 electric cooperatives in South Dakota were without electricity within hours of sunset on Dec. 25.
With the help of mutual aid from Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin co-ops, as well as contractors, it took nine days of long hours, in grueling conditions, for crews to completely restore power, replacing thousands of poles and transmission structures and lifting miles of line back into position.
“At a time like this, cooperatives pull together to get the lights back on,” said Tom Boyko, general manager of East River Electric Power Cooperative. The Madison, South Dakota-based G&T is repairing nearly 500 transmission towers across its service territory, and began re-energizing lines Dec. 29.
Construction and maintenance crews will remain in the area over the next several weeks making system repairs, Boyko said.
BIG STORMS, HUGE PROBLEMS
For nearly a week Krista Atyeo-Gortmaker sat for hours near a propane stove in her dining room, watching her sons, ages 5 and 2, playing with new toys.
Roads were icy and impassable, and she knew power was out across much of northeastern South Dakota following a series of devastating winter storms that began Christmas night.
But her thoughts were with the line crews she saw creeping along in bucket trucks and digger derricks, and the heavy lifting she knew they’d face rebuilding shattered lines needed to restore electricity to farms, homes, ranches and businesses.
“These are our friends and neighbors risking their own lives and sacrificing their comfort to try and get people’s electricity back,” said Atyeo-Gortmaker, one of Milbank, South Dakota-based Whetstone Valley Electric Cooperative’s elected directors.
“I know hundreds of people personally who have been affected by this, and most of them know at least one member of a line crew, so we all pray for their safety when they are out working for us.”
Atyeo-Gortmaker, 42, is the planning and zoning officer for South Dakota’s Grant County and is the Medicare coordination program educator and coordinator for the northeastern portion of the state.
She stayed in contact with the co-op by telephone and email throughout the outage period. She also checked in regularly through social media, reposting and sharing information on restoration progress, particularly for those needing power for the health of their families and livestock.
“People have not been surprised to learn that in some instances restoration could take a week or more,” said Atyeo-Gortmaker. “Keeping people informed about the work makes them far less apprehensive.”
A state of emergency declared Dec. 26 by Gov. Dennis Daugaard allowed out-of-state co-op crews and their contractors to move across South Dakota throughout the restoration period.
As some co-ops completed the bulk of their work, personnel, supplies and equipment were quickly rerouted to areas where major work was still under way.
“Many employees were off for the holidays, but made it back and got to work as quickly as possible,” said Roger Crom, manager of loss control for the South Dakota Rural Electric Association in Pierre. “Linemen know their jobs are to keep the lights on, so when you miss family time, your kids and other family members understand we have to help the members.”
Crom, 62, worked for Codington-Clark Electric Cooperative out of Watertown before taking the statewide job in 2006.
Over the years, he’s missed a lot of Christmases working restoration following winter storms.
“When the power’s back on and you get that smile, hug or handshake from a member who has spent days without power it makes you smile,” said Crom, who, like Zaug, retires in early January. “That makes it worthwhile and when you get home and tell your family about that, they smile too.”
Damage from the Christmas storm was so widespread, and the extended restoration period so long, that crews encountered extreme conditions across the affected areas.
“It rained first, then we had blizzard conditions and a real white out,” said Jordan Jessop, a first-year apprentice line worker with Murdo, South Dakota-based West Central Electric Cooperative. “Then the temperature dropped and it got icy.”
Blustery winds in excess of 50 mph dropped wind chills below minus 50 at times, said Jessop, 21, who joined the staff of his local co-op last July. He recalled previous holiday outages spent with family waiting for the electricity to come back on.
“Now I run a digger truck and sometimes I’ve been out until midnight setting poles,” said Jessop. “I’ve had to climb a few poles to get the lines back up.”
While the Christmas week storms kept him away from family, Jessop says his parents kept track of where he was working. He now considers the experience a highlight of what he expects to be a long co-op career.
“I’ve had some good times, being out in the elements with guys we work with and crews from elsewhere,” said Jessop. “It’s awesome when you get the lines back up and see people’s lights come on, you know they’re inside feeling good knowing they’ve also got heat again.”
Derrill E. Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.