Powerless

Beth Gehrt
What is left of the tree that crashed into the home of Charles Walls is a shattered mess.

The tree that crashed through the ceiling and into the bedroom of Charles and Beola Walls, 5306 N. Longwood, around 4:30 a.m. Thursday was one of the more visible signs of last week’s storms. It left more than 43,000 people in the dark.

“It woke everybody up with a start,” Charles Walls said.

But for the 81 residents in that part of Rolling Acres, it heralded yet another costly and inconvenient power outage.

And, for AmerenCILCO, it was part of a power outage that required more than 1,400 field personnel and two days of around the clock service.

The worst of the storms hit North Peoria somewhere around 4:30 a.m. Thursday. The National Weather Service estimated straight-line winds of 80 mph.

By the next day, AmerenCILCO dispatched 535 linemen working to restore the power to North Peoria, said senior communications executive Neal Johnson — but the people in Rolling Acres would wait about 36 hours.

By that time, temperatures that hovered in the mid-80s and food spoiling in refrigerators made people a little cranky.

Norm Kelly, 5338 N. Longwood Dr., said he thinks the problem with the area is the old trees.

“We have a creek behind us and the original trees are about 80 to 100 years old ... Every year CILCO comes out to cut them, and we all gripe and moan.”

Kelly said his side of the street has six to seven outages to every one on the other side of the street. “It does seem like (power outages happen) an inordinate number of times.”

This time, during the hot part of the day, the Kellys went to stay with his sister. Although he lost about $80 worth of groceries in the refrigerator, Kelly did not lose his sense of humor.

“I lost everything from the refrigerator — except for the beer, thank God.”

Thursday afternoon, passersby could see rows of idle trucks in the parking lots of both Northpoint Shopping Center and Richwoods High School. A mobile storeroom stood ready to supply materials needed to repair the system.

Crews from Decatur manned the trucks at North Point. One lineman said they were just waiting for orders.

“We just can’t go out and find things on our own. There are lines that need to be switched — That’s how people get killed,” he said.

But, as time stretched out, he admitted, “AmerenCILCO is probably not being as efficient as they probably could be. I’d rather be working.”

Johnson said the men were second-shifters waiting for their work orders. He also said the process is not simple.

“There’s nobody messing around here. The most important thing is safety,” he said.

Johnson said big power outages are a “logistic nightmare.”

While telemetry tells the company what substations are experiencing difficulties, the human factor fine-tunes their troubleshooting.

Immediately after the storm passed, field checkers assess problems and call them into the database. Customers also provide vital information, Johnson said.

“We need the customer to call in and let us know about problems. The residential component gives us a much clearer picture,” he said.

After the energy dispatch center enters outage information in the customer service database, a work progress order goes out to the line people.

All that takes time, Johson said. The company’s Web site — which, ironically, cannot be reached by most customers out of power — gives outage safety tips and updates on when power might be restored.

Customers may also call 888-672-5252 to hear recorded updates, available by the customer’s phone number.

According to the Web site, the hierarchy for power restoration begins with large transmission lines and substations. Hospitals, major police and fire stations, and public works facilities receive next priority and then the feeders that carry power from the substations to the customers.

The utility company also coordinates with state and municipality emergency services.

Ameren then makes repairs that will restore the greatest number of customers at one time. That means:first, lines serving large blocks of customers; next, lines serving neighborhoods; and, last, individual services.

Since electricity travels in a single path to get to one’s home or business, all breaks along the path must be repaired before power can be restored. The path could be many miles long.

Knowing there are valid reasons for the delay does not make the time pass any faster for those waiting in the dark. Surprisingly, though, most take it in stride.

“It was hot and it was uncomfortable,” said Marilyn Underwood of 1942 W. White Oak Dr., who went to the gas station and bought bags of ice to put into her refrigerator and freezer.

“I was just happy when it come back on.”

Some longtime residents in the neighborhood have generators, although AmerenCILCO warns people not to use them indoors.

“When the power goes out, you can hear them start up,” said one resident.

Kelly said he quit griping about CILCO when he looked out his window a few years ago and saw a crew working on the lines in the dark while it was raining and lightening.

“Overall, we’ve bitched and moaned, but they are doing a very dangerous job. And, all we want is our lights on.”

Johnson said the unstable weather pattern can cause violent storms to pop up any time.

“The storms have been just killer this year, and now we have the ugly heat,” he said.

Because an outage is the result of an “act of God,” homeowners must be prepared, Johnson said.

“No utility in the world can guarantee 100 percent availability of power.”

For more safety tips and information on how AmerenCILCO handles power outages, go to http://www.ameren.com/Outage/ADC_RS_StormCenter.asp.