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Columbia linemen go to Campbell

Tuesday, February 3, 2009 | 8:25 p.m. CST; updated 10:11 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Mary Mayberry, manager of the Dollar General store in Campbell, assists Columbia Water and Light worker Chip Duren on Sunday. The mayor asked the store, still without power, to provide provisions to the crews on the city’s tab. Among the most popular items were socks and personal care items such as toothpaste and shampoo.

CAMPBELL — Pamela Williams stood outside the BP gas station on U.S. 53, camera in hand. 

She was about to capture a moment she had been waiting for since ice, freezing rain and downed trees shuttered her gas station. Although her generator lit up the mini-mart, electricity didn't make it as far as the gas pumps. 

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When the 13 linemen from Columbia Water and Light rolled up in their fleet of red utility trucks, Williams began to snap away.

“I was just so happy to see them. That’s why I’m out here with my camera,” Williams said. “This is going in my memory book, for sure.”

Over the past week, scenes of appreciation and hospitality played out in this small Bootheel community that calls itself the "peach capital of Missouri." A storm on Jan. 26 across the region knocked out power to the town of about 1,800 and coated everything in 2 inches of ice. 

About 31,000 people in the southeast corner of the state remained without power on Tuesday, according to the State Emergency Management Agency. Power had been restored to about half of Campbell.

Columbia Water and Light lineman supervisor Steve Casteel said he expects they'll remain in Campbell until the end of the week, though that could change since they'll go where they're needed.

Over the weekend, branches and limbs were strewn helter-skelter on every street and almost every yard. On Oak and Park streets, a tree looked as if a bomb inside it had exploded, its trunk and branches splayed outwards like petals on a grotesque flower. At Adeson Maxwell’s house on U.S. 53, a huge branch from an old oak crashed down on his carport, pinning his white Ford pickup inside.  The buzz of chainsaws filled the air as residents began to pick up the mess.

Even as they struggled with anxiety, frustration and the boredom of living without power, many residents took it upon themselves to play host to the linemen who came rumbling into their town in caravans of utility trucks. 

By last weekend, the ice was melting — which caused even more problems. As lines released the weight of the ice, they snapped up, crashed into one another and fell again.

The crew from Columbia spoke of the hospitality and kindness it has found since arriving in Campbell late last Wednesday night.

“They’ve gone 100 percent out of their way, above and beyond, to make us comfortable,” apprentice Andy Quinlin said. “You can only find that in a small town like this.”

"I've never been on a storm duty where they treated us like this," lineman Chuck Schouten said.

The city has fixed workers up with meals, let them shop at the Dollar General without paying and housed them in travel-trailers parked at the local utility's headquarters. After working sunup to sundown, there's even free Bud Light and Natural Light while they play rummy or Okinawa gin.

Lineman Tim Wilson said the storm duty is "something different," but more than that, he enjoys the satisfaction of knowing that he’s helped people. Wilson has been called away to disaster areas before, such as to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. People’s appreciation for the linemen gives him a good feeling, he says.

“When we were in Louisiana, we’d come up to a six-way intersection and the people going the other direction had a green light, but everybody would just stop and get out and wave you through, saying thank you," Wilson said. "And there’s just no feeling like that, people appreciating what you do.”

Feeding the workers

At lunchtime Saturday, Vondy’s Daisy Hut, a cheery yellow cafe downtown, is buzzing. Long-armed bucket trucks and digger trucks with giant corkscrews to set poles line Grand Avenue.

The logos on the truck doors show where the crews hail from  — Columbia, Marshall, Hannibal and Hardy, Ark. Half the people crowded into the Daisy Hut are linemen, and many of them sport signature overall worksuits.

Allen Edwards II, Campbell's electric department and power plant supervisor, is slumped at a table. He hasn’t slept at home for five days – he’s been bedding down at the power plant, keeping watch on the main generators powering a few blocks downtown.

Vondy Goldsmith, owner of the Daisy Hut, was first put on call Thursday night, when Mayor Raymond Gunter called her up and asked if she could fix 80 burgers and 60 fries for a whole mess of hungry linemen.

“I said, ‘Oh, Lord.’ Then I got my fiancé, and we cooked them on the gas grill by candlelight,” Goldsmith said.

She’s had a migraine for days and says she’s been overwhelmed – not just by the crews but by hungry townspeople who can’t cook. She’s called in family members to help get the food out.

“We’re one of the only places in town to get a hot meal,” Goldsmith said.  The only other restaurant feeding the crews is Big B’s Flamin’ Pit farther down the street.

Gunter sits at a table with his two boys as his wife, Ashley Gunter – Goldsmith’s daughter – darts between tables carrying hot plates of burgers, sandwiches and peach cobbler. Every so often, Gunter’s cell phone rings with updates on the power or people asking when they’ll get their lights back on. 

Two DISH network technicians come in to speak with him. Gunter has hired them to set up cable at the community center so the linemen can watch the Super Bowl. Gunter also has been coordinating meals, rotating between Vondy’s and Big B’s, and has housed some crews in the fire station and trailers.

“We try to feed them well, make it so they can have hot showers,” Gunter said. “We try to make them as comfortable as we can.”

Although he calls this the worst ice storm to ever hit the area, Gunter says he can’t complain about the help he’s been getting from the Columbia crew and others.

“They’re a great bunch of guys, good sense of humor. We’ve having a blast with them,” Gunter said.

Laundry duty

In the firehouse Sunday afternoon, the warm scent of clean laundry hangs in the air. Diane Edwards, whose husband, Allen Edwards, serves as the fire chief, stands in front of a whirring dryer folding a plaid flannel shirt. She and Jeannie Meadows, an EMT, have been doing laundry for the crews staying in town.

 A lineman from Marshall walks in for a shower.

“Hey babe, you need your laundry done?” she asks.

He protests politely, but Edwards isn’t having any of it.

“Put your clothes in a bag, put your name and phone number on it, and I’ll do it,” she says.  He relents, looking pleased that someone is taking care of his dirty clothes.

Edwards says she’s enjoyed having the guys around and thinks “it’s all come to good.”

There’s no thought in her mind of leaving to stay with friends or family out of town, though she lives out in the country where power won’t be restored for perhaps weeks.

“I was born and raised here. I’m going to stay here and help,” she said.

Stocking up

Earlier on Sunday, the Columbia crew stops in front of a darkened Dollar General store. There's no power here, but manager Mary Mayberry has opened her doors – for linemen only. She and her employees Justin Rice and Danny Hightower have been stocking shelves with flashlights. Empty, silent refrigerators once carried frozen goods that had to be tossed.

Rice acts as the doorman, letting the guys in one by one, locking it behind them. They wander around in the dim natural light, searching for goods such as socks, long underwear and toothpaste. They’ve packed for about a week, but because laundry can only be done at the firehouse, it’s sometimes easier to just buy an eight-pack of socks.

The city lets the linemen take what they need for free. At the checkout stand, the guys line up, and Mayberry jots down what they take. The city will reimburse her later.

Back to work

Waitresses Leah Higgins, Angela Green and Dawn Dickens are hanging out at the front counter of Big B’s Flamin' Pit. There’s a lull now, but just wait – later, there will be 70 linemen cramming the barbecue joint to feast on ribs. Cooks have been working for hours to prepare the dinner.

Big B’s is also where the Columbia crew came to eat when it first rolled into town.

Lineman Pat Karl said the crew ran a light into the restaurant and the women fixed them soup, chili, hamburgers and French fries. 

“We tried to pay her, but she wouldn’t take any money,” Karl said. “That’s what’s nice about small towns like this.”

Higgins, Dickens and Green all said it was good to be getting back to work. After being cooped up without electricity, cabin fever was beginning to set in.

“We had 25 people in one house – including 12 kids,” Dickens said. She had gone to her brother’s place where other family members gathered. “We played Red Rover.”

All three agreed that though it was a tough time for the town, taking care of the linemen is just something one does in times such as these.

“We figure if they can help us out like that, we can help them out,” Higgins said. “The better off they are, the better off we are. “

 


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