SIKESTON — Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday pledged whatever support is necessary to help Missourians who are without power after ice and snow storms earlier this week, even as utility providers said it could be a week or longer before electricity returns to the hardest-hit areas.
Nixon surveyed the damage with more than a dozen other people on board a Blackhawk helicopter. From the helicopter flying at 150 miles an hour over the Bootheel, the area looked deceptively peaceful as snowy fields, ice-covered lakes and thick forests obscured the view of downed power lines, fallen branches and slick side streets.
Fog prevented Nixon from landing in Sikeston, but the helicopter set down in Cape Girardeau, and those on board drove farther south to Sikeston's public safety headquarters.
"We'll do whatever it takes. We're here to support you all in what you do," Nixon said.
He has asked the federal government to declare a state of emergency in Missouri counties hurt by the weather.
About 150 Missouri National Guard soldiers were clearing roads in Charleston, Portageville and Sikeston. They also were going door-to-door in Ripley, Dunklin and Butler counties, and in Sikeston and Malden, to make sure residents had enough supplies and were able to get to aid.
Joy Cauthorn, coordinator of emergency preparedness for the Missouri Delta Medical Center, said the hospital had requested more nurses and emergency room doctors from elsewhere in the region.
"We are inundated with patients at this point. It's beginning to be a big issue," she said.
About 113,000 electrical customers remained without power in Missouri, and there were 28 shelters open that had taken in about 3,500 people. Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Tim Hull said not all of those people were staying overnight, with many stopping by a shelter for a hot meal or chance to get out of the cold.
"We urge people, if it's going to be an extended period of time without power, we urge them to find a warm location," he said.
Six deaths related to severe ice and snow storms had been reported in Missouri since Monday, but no new fatalities were reported Thursday.
St. Louis-based AmerenUE added 800 workers to its efforts to restore power in southeast Missouri, with another 800 expected Friday. That would bring the number of linemen, tree trimmers and others working to restore power to 3,100.
"Because of the severity of the damage and the amount of ice, customers could be out of power for an extended period — a week or longer," the company said in a statement. Spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said the utility was not yet able to provide a target date for when it hoped to have all its power back to residents.
"As we restore some, we're losing others. The ice is just so treacherous," she said.
In the Missouri town of Caruthersville, near the Tennessee border, firefighters, church leaders and other volunteers knocked on doors of elderly and handicapped residents to make sure they were all right.
A generator was in use to distribute some water in town, but Fire Chief Charlie Jones had concerns about what would happen when the temporary measure ran out.
"We're definitely worried about the community with no power, no water. Restaurants aren't open and there are no (open) fueling stations," he said.
He estimated it could be eight to 10 days before power is restored there.
He said two overnight shelters, which could hold about 100 people, and two warming stations had opened in the community of about 6,500 residents roughly 200 miles south of St. Louis.
In some cases, people were able to drive to Tennessee to refuel and get supplies, and he expected water shipments from the state to arrive Friday.
One family staying at a shelter at Sikeston High School said it was still pretty cold, even there. Vincent Albritton, 41, and his family missed the other comforts of home, such as hot meals, but thought they'd stay four or five more days while they wait for their power to come back on.
"We don't have any other choice," he said.