UPDATE: Missouri utility workers head east to help with Hurricane Sandy relief

Monday, October 29, 2012 | 4:02 p.m. CDT; updated 4:01 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 7, 2013

*This story has been updated to indicate that Missouri Task Force 1 was activated Monday night.

COLUMBIA — Missouri Task Force 1, a division of the Boone County Fire Protection District, has been deployed to areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

The task force will leave within four hours, according to press release sent at 10:03 p.m. Monday night. The task force hopes to be in Herndon, Va., by 5 p.m. Tuesday, where it will await a mission assignment. The task force was put on alert at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

"That's a long haul," Gale Blomenkamp, division chief, said of the trip.

Blomenkamp said earlier that with hurricanes there is plenty of prediction time. That helps the task force prepare more effectively by taking more equipment suited for water rescues.

“When we were activated during Katrina we did a lot of boat rescues, so this has the potential to be the same kind of thing,” Blomenkamp said.

The task force has four hours to get 80 people and 100,000 pounds of equipment ready to respond, Blomenkamp said. The task force must prepare transportation, secure buses and determine convoy plans in order to submit the information to FEMA, he said.

Blomenkamp said earlier, before deployment, that the task force was at the ready.

“If they pull the trigger we’re ready to go, no question about it,” Blomenkamp said.

Task forces in Indiana, Tennessee, and Ohio have been put on alert as well.

Missouri Task Force 1 members aren't the only locals headed east to help. Forty utility employees from Missouri, including 12 from Columbia, departed for Springfield, Ohio, on Monday and will be dispatched from there to rebuild electrical grids in areas hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Kevin Thorton is a foreman in charge of one of the two six-man teams from Columbia. He said his team will help in the reconstruction effort by erecting poles for power lines and repairing underground utility lines. 

"We will be rebuilding the whole infrastructure of the electrical grid," Thorton said. 

The crews are assembling in Springfield in western Ohio, where they will wait to see where Sandy's hammer hits hardest. The crews almost certainly will be working in West Virginia. 

West Virginia is anticipating a brutal blow this week. Hurricane Sandy will be teaming up with a high-pressure system from the north and a cold front from the west to triple-team the mountain state with torrential rains likely to turn into blizzards and high-power winds that have the potential to rip down trees and power lines. 

That's where the utility linemen from Missouri will probably come in. Missouri workers anticipate joining relief workers from all over the nation to help the overwhelmed employees of West Virginia.

The emergency workers are part of a mutual aid agreement among utility companies to help each other in times of need. The Missouri Public Utility Alliance is responsible for organizing municipal utilities companies to respond in cases such as this.

According to Missouri Public Utility Alliance employee Mike Conyers, each utility company is registered through the American Public Power Association, which enables them to cross state lines. Conyers said he is confident in the ability of the Missouri crews.

"These guys are probably the most skilled in the state," Conyers said. "They're good at what they do, and they're experienced.". 

Connie Kacprowicz, a spokeswoman for Columbia Water and Light, said utility linemen from Columbia last aided in emergency efforts in 2008, when Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas coastline.

Thorton said the biggest challenge in these emergency situations often is getting around. With the potential for heavy snow and downed tress and power lines, roads in West Virginia could be challenging to navigate.

The emergency crews face the prospect of roughing it for a couple of weeks. Thorton was not in Texas in 2008, but he said that his co-workers slept in cars and truck beds when they first arrived. He said that the traveling crews have no idea how long they will be in West Virginia and that it will be hard to judge until the storm has done its damage. The crews will stay until the job is done. 

"We prepare for the worst, hope for the best," said Thorton.

Ameren Missouri

Ameren Missouri Electric Co. will send an additional 150 linemen and field support personnel to aid in the Sandy relief efforts; 52 of those people are from mid-Missouri. They will join the already 200-strong Ameren team stationed in Somerset, N.J.

Ameren employees helping respond to the storm will be under the direction of Public Service Electric and Gas, the local utility. Ameren Missouri spokesman Kent Martin said Ameren customers will endure none of these costs as they are paid for by the local utility under the mutual aid agreement.

Martin said that Ameren linemen and contractors will be on call around the clock, and that they are expected to be in New Jersey for up to two weeks. The next few days will answer the question of how long in amount of damage done.

Missourian reporter Kaylie Denenberg contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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