Editor's Note: for more pictures from Joplin, click here.
On May 22, 2011, one of the deadliest tornadoes in our nation’s history ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo. Winds faster than 200 mph tore a path of devastation nearly a half-mile wide and 10 miles long. Approximately one-third of the city of 50,000 was either destroyed or severely damaged. At press time, the death toll stood at 159.
Responding with emergency power in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure, was and continues to be the job of the Empire District Electric Co., an investor--owned electric, gas and water utility based in Joplin that serves approximately 215,000 customers in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
“It was unlike any other situation we experienced. For example, an ice storm where we’ve had lines damaged so businesses and hospitals may have had to use generator power while we restore the system,” said Emily Stanley, communications coordinator for Empire. “The difference this time … everything was torn down by the tornado, so there was nothing left to deliver energy to.”
Approximately 4.25 square miles of densely populated area was destroyed, including 7,000 structures damaged, 4,000 homes destroyed or uninhabitable and 18,000 vehicles wrecked. FEMA estimates that more than 3 million cubic yards of storm debris will be removed.
“In the immediate aftermath, our people were working incredibly long days as were the crews we brought in from outside areas to restore power,” Stanley said.
There was a huge amount of work. One substation was demolished and other distribution infrastructure damaged. Ten transmission lines, 135 transmission poles, 3,850 distribution poles, 100 miles of line, thousands of transformers and even underground equipment were destroyed.
To deal with the recovery, Empire drew 150 line personnel from its service territory and an additional 250 from other utilities and contractors into Joplin. KCP&L and City Utilities, both in Missouri, provided line crews, although every utility in the Midwest Mutual Assistance Group offered help. Private electrical contractors included B & L Electric Inc., Clinton, Mo.; Bison Electric Inc., Tulsa, Okla.; and PAR Electrical Contractors Inc., Kansas City, -Mo. Empire assigned 120 members of its vegetation management team to the cleanup, and hundreds of other Empire personnel in logistics and community relations provided emergency customer services and supported field crews with lodging, food and water.
“The entire infrastructure was wiped out, and the people it was serving were also gone,” Stanley said. “St. John’s Hospital was gone and could not serve patients. We had to make sure that Freeman Health System, our other, and now only, hospital that was serving tornado victims, maintained solid, reliable energy. Our linemen and vegetation management personnel had to go in quickly and establish a new connection route to Freeman because the substation was damaged. We had several line personnel who lost homes and family members, or had family members who lost homes and businesses, yet they did what they could to help. They were out there working 16 hours a day trying to restore power for the greater good of the community. It’s very telling of the quality of individuals we have here. Everyone knows somebody who lost someone, and that is a terribly sad situation. But we have rallied around one another. Everyone who can be restored has been restored, but we are always working as businesses are being reopened or as houses are repaired.”