No time to freeze
Minnkota Power Cooperative and Cass County Electric Cooperative recently battled the effects of a rare Christmas ice storm.
The morning of Dec. 28, Darrell Discher took his time driving the gravel roads of southeast Cass County, N.D. A frosty fog was starting to lift off the fields, the ghost of a three-day ice storm that began on Christmas and weighed down miles of power lines to their breaking point. Discher’s grandson (a Cass County Electric Cooperative member) had been out of power for three days at his Davenport-area farm, the same farm Discher had called home for years before.
A lifetime in Cass County – and he had never experienced this level of destruction.
“This time of the year? Never. Never this bad, ever,” Discher said after stopping on the road near a caravan of Minnkota Power Cooperative vehicles, with lineworkers removing shattered power poles in the distance. “1997 was bad, but I don’t think that was as bad as this.”
This was day four of restoration efforts following the historic ice storm, which brought down at least 60 of Minnkota’s transmission structures and more than 1,200 poles in Cass County Electric’s distribution system. Outages affected thousands of CCEC members, some of whom were out of power for nearly two weeks as repairs and replacements progressed.
The regional damage was devastating. But the work of more than a hundred co-op lineworkers from across the tri-state area would make it right. The dangerous conditions, exhaustingly long days, and pressure to get the power back on didn’t hinder these crews. Quite the opposite.
“Linemen love this,” Minnkota line foreman Butch Tester yelled, just before joining his crew to set new poles. “Every lineman loves this.”
The first days
On Dec. 25, Minnkota lineworkers initially responded to three downed transmission poles in Ransom County. When line foreman Nick Bye heard his phone ring the next morning, he knew the numbers had climbed. His team loaded 20 poles to bring from Grand Forks, N.D., south to CCEC territory. After assisting with several ice-related challenges in the area, from frozen line switches to downed wires on the road, Bye and two of his lineworkers responded to another line break.
“As we were bringing it up, things started cracking and creaking,” Bye said. They would have to remove ice from the lines to prevent more damage. “We’ve had to beat ice up in Langdon, N.D., before – hoar frost where you just tap it and the whole span clears. Here, you would tap it and you’d get a foot or 18 inches. With three of us, it took 30-45 minutes to clear one span.”
Three Minnkota line crews continued triage through the day and night, taking care of broken poles as more continued to fall. The temperature hovered around the freezing point. As the rain continued, it polished and added to the ice that had formed. The ice became thicker than it was during the historic 1997 storm that crippled the region.
“Ice was built up so much that you couldn’t wrap your hand around the wire. If you had any sort of wind, it would be mass chaos,” Bye said. “We got lucky.”
The work was dangerous, but just getting to each site proved to be a small miracle. The ice that coated lines also covered highways and gravel roads. It was so slick that roads were being closed and people were advised to stay home. Power delivery crews don’t have that luxury.
In one case, a Minnkota crew was bringing a 40-ton crane to a work site in the middle of the night when they stopped to assess their location. The driver got out and looked around, and as he did, the parked crane started to slip to the edge of the gravel road.
“As they were trying to figure things out, it slid all the way down into the ditch,” said Harold Narlock, Minnkota’s Power Delivery Operations Manager. “It took off again by itself. It was so slippery you couldn’t stand. So now what do you do?”
With the combined help of county officials with a sanding truck, a local towing company with a large wrecker, and a nearby farmer with a plow-equipped tractor, they were able to get the truck back on the road and out to the middle of the field to make line repairs. Not a single person would accept payment for the assistance. The farmer even stayed around in case he was needed again.
“That was the interaction we had with the public. I haven’t seen anything like it in my years. It was that way everywhere,” Narlock said. “That gave the guys the extra shot of adrenaline to want to put in the extra time. If that’s the way they’re acting toward us, we’re going to go the extra mile to get this taken care of and get everything back to normal.”
During that week, Minnkota line crews far extended their normal hours. Some even logged days pushing 24 hours in the initial wave. That wasn’t sustainable, and the response quickly became all hands on deck, with tasks rippling through several departments. Power delivery superintendents made nonstop calls to organize crews and prioritize efficiently. Area lineworkers patrolled and assessed lines. Power system operators were glued to their control center screens. Electricians and utility workers were sent to support lineworkers in framing new poles and clearing sites. Everyone from procurement to IT to engineering stepped up – and every minute was appreciated.
“We got a lot of help from the electricians, and that was huge,” Bye said. “We couldn’t have done it without the help of the electricians.”
By the weekend, Minnkota crews were able to take a breath and spend the New Year’s Day holiday with their loved ones. Bye had to be away from family a lot those first few days, but he says that’s a part of the job. He points to an exchange his wife had with their daughter’s basketball coach while he was in the midst of storm repairs.
“She was like, ‘Yeah, my husband’s been working a lot this week, because he’s a lineman.’ And the coach said, ‘Oh, it’s like harvest time for them!’” Bye recounted with a grin.
Supporting each other
As Minnkota Vice President of Power Delivery Brendan Kennelly reflected on the storm – one that will go down as the second most destructive in the last 20 years – he marveled that all crews were able to keep safety at the forefront in nearly impossible conditions.
“Yes, we had some things slide around, but we didn’t have any major safety incidents or anything of that nature. The guys really look out for each other,” he said. “I’m very proud of them for that.”
Support for Minnkota and CCEC poured in during the two-week window of restoration. When CCEC called for mutual aid, line crews from 15 cooperatives in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota responded. Over several days, CCEC lineworkers labored alongside 99 co-op counterparts.
Additionally, crews received a flood of support from the public, including those patiently waiting for days for their power to come back. Folks brought handmade goodies and snacks or just stopped by with words of encouragement. Handmade signs of thanks popped up at CCEC service centers. But the most impressive support came from social media, which could have easily turned into a platform of complaints.
“We used all our communication channels to share information about the event several times daily with our members and the public. The support we received by keeping our members informed was incredible,” CCEC President/CEO Marshal Albright said. “More than a thousand comments were posted on our social media to support the crews for their efforts to restore power, and the comments gave us all the drive to work tirelessly to get the power back on.”
Although Minnkota was able to restore power to all CCEC-connected substations by Dec. 27, the road for complete restoration to end-users extended longer. After 25,000 working hours rebuilding miles of line with the help of the larger cooperative family, CCEC reenergized its final member on Jan. 5.
Mother Nature is tough. But rural electric cooperatives are tougher.
“I am incredibly proud of all the employees who helped in a coordinated effort to restore power to Cass County Electric's members,” Albright said. “This is the co-op principle of ‘Cooperation Among Cooperatives’ at its finest.”
MAIN IMAGE: A Minnkota line crew prepares to remove the shattered remains of a power pole south of Valley City, N.D. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)