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Ameren went to work restoring power to 75,000 customers
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Ameren went to work restoring power to 75,000 customers

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When weather forecasters predict stormy weather, Ameren Illinois begins to plan for possible emergencies and moves personnel and equipment close to the area predicted to have the greatest impact.

This was the case on May 8, 2009.

Forecasters were predicting widespread, serious storms, according to Kelly Bauza, Ameren Division 6 senior manager of operations. Bauza went to the Anna office that day because he anticipated that to be the point of greatest impact. He and a couple supervisors were just “hanging out” and watching the radar.

Then the storm hit.

Immediately, Bauza had a sense this was somehow different than other storms.

“The lights didn’t blink. They just — boom — went out,” Bauza said. “I started watching the outage screen. We had a few orders, but they were transmission orders. Then, I got the phone call.”

First, transmission dispatch called to say the roof was off the Grand Tower Power Plant. It was laying in the substation across the transmission structures. Then calls from supervisors in Carbondale and Marion who told him he “better get up here.” They described widespread damage.

“That’s when I started my trek up the interstate (57), and usually it would take about a half hour to go from Anna to Marion. The majority of that trip was fine. I got past Interstate 24, but when I got two to three miles south of Marion, I saw trees blown across the interstate on either side. That last two to three miles to get to the office took about 45 minutes,” Bauza said. “It was devastation everywhere.”

He arrived at the Marion office about 3 p.m.

He called Jason Klein, Division 6 Operation director of operations, in Belleville and suggested he “get down here.” Klein and many others began making their way to Marion to help address the damage.

Klein added that the Marion office also was damaged. Part of the roof was gone, as well as the back stairwell.

While their ultimate goal is to mobilize to restore power to the region, the employees of Ameren Illinois are our friends and neighbors. They, like the rest any of us who were at work that day, worried about their families and homes.

After quickly checking on their families, Ameren employees went to work. They had 75,000 customers without power across the region. Along with power outages, they had gas line issues.

“Typically in a storm, we don’t worry about facilities that are underground. In that storm, you had trees uprooted. One picture I remember seeing was an 18-foot root ball. It brought our natural gas lines which are typically below ground above ground. While we were dealing with electrical issues, we also had to deal with natural gas issues and make sure we were getting those addressed timely and safely to prevent any other issues,” Klein said.

A staging area was set up in the parking lots of Sam’s Club and Cornerstone Church. That area became the center of restoration work for the utility, as well as the site of daily press conferences.

“In my 20-some-year career, that’s the first time I ever remember doing that in Illinois,” Klein said.

As Bauza looked out the windows of the Marion office Friday night, all he could see is darkness. The Ameren crews and partners worked through the night Friday, all day Saturday and into the night, yet all Bauza could see Saturday was still darkness. This is the only time he recalls everyone working so hard with so little to show for it.

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"Almost all of our infrastructure had been damaged, so we had to start out with transmission, the distribution,” said Brian Bretsch, Ameren spokesman.

The first job was to restore damaged transmission lines, the larger voltage lines. Because many of those run across the countryside, Ameren took to the air Friday just after the storm to survey the transmission system.

Helicopters went up again on Saturday. As reports continued to come in on Sunday, they once again took to the air. At the time, Klein said, it was the fastest way to get around. Bauza said they had helicopters in the air four or five days of the first week after the storm.

Transmission lines take power from the power plants to the substations and sub-transmission lines (between towns), which take power to distribution lines and on to customers.

They had a group working on transmission system, another on sub-transmission system and a third on distribution systems in towns.

“It was a multi-phased restoration project to get the lights back on,” Klein said.

“We had the majority of folks on in seven to nine days,” Bauza said.

Some customers took up to two weeks to get their power restored.

Tina Gibbs, Ameren community relations coordinator, was responsible for communicating with mayors and emergency responders.

“Critical facilities, hospitals and nursing homes, are always top priority, then emergency response,” Gibbs said.

Customers on life support became a huge concern for Ameren. Gibbs said they called each life support customer to help them make other arrangements. This is the only time she has had to do that. They also set up customer services at the Marion mall, so customers could talk to someone in person.

Another issue for Ameren came from the amount of water that accompanied the derecho. There was flooding and water everywhere. People not only brought food to workers in the field, but literally pulled them though fields with tractors.

“The amount of off roads equipment that came in from all over, we’ve never seen the likes of that,” Bauza said.

Contractors brought track equipment designed to go through water.

Ameren, like the rest of us, learned some things during the May 9, 2009, derecho. 

They now have a group dedicated to emergency response arrangements, such as hotel reservations. During this storm, many workers spent the first night sleeping in offices and vehicles. 

They added cash as an item recommended for emergency kits. When the ATM does not work, cash is not readily available. At the same time, credit and debit card systems don't work when the power is out. 

Klein, Bauza and Gibbs recommend updating family emergency kits when the time changes. Add sweatshirts and warm clothing in the fall. Rotate medication and restore cash in the spring.

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