Today, January 25, marks one month since the Grant County area was struck by the 2016 Christmas Day ice storm. The storm left turmoil in its wake for nearly five days and 3,500 Whetstone Valley Electric Cooperative members without power.
South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard declared a state of emergency on December 27 due to blizzard conditions that left motorists stranded and households and businesses without power. The storm affected the entire state and caused more than 26,000 members of 20 South Dakota electric cooperatives to lose power.
Linemen from WVEC and three surrounding electric cooperatives worked tirelessly to restore electrical power. “They battled below-zero temperatures, wind, and ice to reset 200 broken poles and wire,” stated WVEC Operations Manager Jon Christensen. “Our linemen were gung-ho, stepped up to the challenge, and worked as long as needed without complaints or bad attitudes.”
Retired lineman, Don Gerdes, whose career spanned over 40 years as a lineman for WVEC, stepped in to help out that week. “Don stopped by our employee potluck dinner before the Christmas weekend,” said WVEC General Manager Dave Page. “There was talk about a big storm coming and someone jokingly told Don we might need his help if the storm hit. Sure enough, the storm hit. He was out of town, but he quickly made his way back to Milbank and took off running to help out as a bird dog.”
Gerdes graciously took charge of running two of the out-of-town crews from early morning until the crews were done each evening. He showed them where to go, got them what they needed, guided them to where the power feeds were, and helped keep everyone safe. Christensen said, “He knows our system like the back of his hand and it allowed one of my local lineman to be freed up to work on putting the wires up.”
The treacherous conditions were not unknown to many of the linemen and electricians. A major storm hit in 2010 when 500 to 700 poles were lost. “That time, we received more damage to our system than this year, but it did not affect as many of our customers,” Page explained. “We lost less poles this year, but lost more of our feeds.”
“It takes you by surprise no matter what,” stated line foreman Gene Sass who has been with WVEC for over 30 years. “Ice the size of a coffee can or football was around the lines and was falling all around us. I had my truck parked to the side of where I was working, but some came down and hit the truck. It dented it and broke the mirror off. It was dangerous at times, but it’s our job.”
The electricians in the cooperative also helped customers with their back-up generators. Jack Hoeke, an electrician with WVEC for over 20 years, checked in regularly with an elderly woman who lived alone and was using a small generator along with a wood burning stove to heat her home. “I was concerned she wouldn’t be able to keep the stove running and would run out of wood,” he said. “I knew of a guy who lived near her and asked if he would help her. I worked with him to make sure she had enough wood and was safe during the storm.”
In turn, an outpouring of help from the community supported the cooperative. People provided food, water, and Gatorade to employees at the office and supplied hot meals to the crews out doing the work. Christensen said, “Young kids brought in donuts and apple cider.”
Brianna Hermans, with the help of others in the community, provided hot meals for the linemen at the Milbank Visitor Center two nights. “She has no ties with WVEC. She is not even on one of our lines. She just wanted to help out. It was amazing,” Page and Christensen agreed.
Additional aid came from farmers who moved snow for the crews and citizens who looked out for the disabled and elderly people without power. “One guy looked after two disabled people along with several elderly folks and never asked for power to his own home,” Page said. “He kept in regular contact with me to let me know how they were doing. It was so cool so many people were looking out for the safety and well-being of others.”
Page commented the main office also received phone calls and visits of support. “Many of the calls were people wanting to know when their power would be back. But, even when they were frustrated and concerned, they always thanked us for what we were doing. Every phone call always ended with people expressing concern for the linemen. They wanted me to tell them to always be safe,” he said emotionally.
The office staff was also affected by this storm. “Our staff fielded hundreds, if not thousands, of phone calls,” Page said. “They answered questions, put together meals for the crews, and stayed late.”
One month ago, the community was in disarray. People were scrambling to get generators hooked up to their furnaces to stay warm while others temporarily relocated to homes of family and friends. “Since there was no power, we kept the kids entertained by going to Unity Square to swim and have fun,” said Jessica Strobl. “Then we used their locker rooms to shower.”
Others were fortunate enough to have gas stoves and fireplaces run on propane to use as their main heating source. “We were lucky,” said Melissa O’Farrell. “We had a big slumber party for a few days. The kids stayed busy playing board games, sliding down icy hills, and drinking cocoa. We also got them to help clean out the fridge and freezers that had started to thaw.”
Seehafer Ace Hardware was busy selling generators, space heaters, and batteries which ran out of stock very quickly. “We sold all of our generators ,” stated Kristi Seehafer. “Phil secured an emergency truck from Ace with 20 more generators and other supplies. It arrived about 11:30 p.m. Phil went out to the store and unloaded it by himself so they were ready to sell that next morning.” Bob Hartman from Hartman’s Family Foods said, “We sold a lot of water, lunch meat and sandwich fixings, and ready-to-eat deli food.”
“Many people stayed in motels the first night and did not anticipate needing to stay longer,” stated Grant County Emergency Management Director Sheryl Ward. “Once it was determined the outage would last more than a few days and the motels were all booked up with extra linemen crews, we had more people utilize the emergency shelter.”
Four people were seen at the emergency room of Milbank Area Hospital Avera for gas inhalation. “Fortunately, there were no patients seen for carbon monoxide poisoning,” stated clinic administrator Patti Swenson.
Throughout the Christmas Day storm, the people of Grant county remained strong and generous. Mother Nature can destroy many things but sometimes she reminds us how together we can weather any storm.