Reason To Give Thanks
Story by Bill
Sherrod, Managing Editor
from electric cooperatives in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware found
mountains of gnarled trees and a state of general destruction when
they arrived in the battered Gulf Coats area of Mississippi to help
restore power and rebuild electric-distribution systems destroyed by
From time to time, we forget how lucky we are. Then,
something like Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita comes along, and the
reasons we have for giving thanks come into sharp focus.
So it was this year as hurricane season approached.
Predictions were for a higher-than-normal number of hurricanes spinning in
like reckless, destructive tops from the Atlantic. With memories of past
storms still in our minds but fading with time, we went about our daily
tasks, complaining about the rising cost of gasoline, concerned about
affairs in distant lands, and, in general, just getting on with life.
As Katrina brewed, there seemed at first to be no great
cause for alarm. Indeed, even as it crossed southern Florida into the Gulf
of Mexico, the storm did not appear overly threatening. But as it traversed
the Gulf, building in intensity and menacing the heavily populated coastal
region, concern began to mount.
Katrina’s Aug. 29 landfall, slightly off-center from
a feared dead-on strike at New Orleans, nonetheless wrought death and
destruction in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. New Orleans, at first
seemingly spared the worst effects of the storm, was soon inundated when its
protective levees gave way and water rushed in, trapping many residents who
were unable or unwilling to evacuate the below-sea-level city before the
storm hit. In very short order, the situation became a full-scale disaster.
This is when we started to see imagery and words about
the horrors unfolding in the stricken area, especially New Orleans. News
accounts, some of which turned out to be fabrications, concentrated on the
worst behavior. Much of America watched in stunned disbelief as the media,
intoxicated with the ever-worsening state of affairs in the Gulf states,
radiated wave after wave of apocalyptic reportage.
Largely unnoticed, especially early on, were the
charitable, selfless, even heroic efforts of people, both within and outside
the stricken area. From school children raising money to help hurricane
victims to electric cooperative employees working to restore power in the
Gulf area, the better instincts of Americans kicked in, and this is a story
that needs to be told in this season of celebration and thanks.
The sixth and seventh cooperative principles,
“cooperation among cooperatives” and “concern for community,” are
the driving ideas behind the cooperative tenet of mutual assistance. All
across the nation, electric cooperatives began dispatching crews of linemen
and construction specialists. Literally thousands of cooperative workers
made their way to the stricken Gulf Coast states to help their electric
co-op brethren restore and rebuild electric systems.
All 16 of the electric cooperatives in Virginia,
Maryland & Delaware sent crews, contract workers, and/or cash donations
(totaling more than $50,000) south in the wake of Katrina. The Virginia,
Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives’ Safety and
Training Services Department assisted in procuring
crews and helping with logistics as the workers moved
into the Gulf Coast area and rotated out. As the November-December issue of
Cooperative Living was going to press, workers from this region were still
on hand, helping out in Louisiana and other affected areas of the Gulf
To try and chronicle some of this effort, Cooperative
Living sent award-winning photographer Thurston Howes into the fray on a
three-day photo assignment. His pictures, and the things he saw, tell the
story of cooperative helping hands and the goodwill of people helping people
in a time of dire need.
Howes departed at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, drove
through the night and arrived in Gulfport, Miss., at 1:45 p.m. the following
Upon arrival, Howes said he was struck by the upbeat
attitude of the people in the stricken area. “The night before I left,
I’d watched the television coverage of the affected areas, and the stories
were always of people complaining about how bad they had it,” said Howes.
“When I got to Gulfport, all I heard was positive, upbeat people with
their noses to the grindstone, digging out in a monumental way.”
The residents of the devastated areas were hugely
appreciative of the visiting cooperative crews helping to restore order to
their lives, as well. “One of the things I heard over and over again was
how much help the workers from up north were,” Howes noted. The local
people told Howes, “ ‘We can’t believe how much we’ve gotten done
with your crews.’ They said the crews from up here were the
hardest-working crews they had ever seen — they said they’d strung more
wire than they would have ever hoped for and were literally weeks ahead of
the schedule they’d set for repairs and restoration work.”
Workers from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware who were
on hand to help with restoring and rebuilding in Mississippi were as upbeat
as the residents of the stricken area. “The crews from here all had
positive attitudes,” said Howes. “Some were staying in a tent city set
up to accommodate some 2,000-plus people, some were staying in churches –
people were spread all about, and the common denominator was that none of
these places were what you’d call comfortable.”
There were challenges in finding food, sleeping
quarters, and in locating work sites, since most all of the street signs and
many of the landmarks used in giving directions were wiped out by the storm.
“It was logistically difficult for everybody to find their way and do
their job,” Howes noted. Eventually, people started using larger, more
permanent landmarks and geographical features when giving directions, he
added. There were other regional peculiarities that the help from up north
had to get used to, as well, such as extra-hungry mosquitoes and “love
bugs,” which appeared by the millions each day at about 10 a.m. and
quickly coated any vehicle moving through a swarm.
Everyone had a story. Thurston Hendry, one of the local
co-op employees who helped Howes locate workers from Virginia, Maryland and
Delaware, noted that his daughter had just built a new home that was
completely demolished by the storm. When asked what his daughter would do,
Hendry said, simply, “We’ll just start over again.”
When Howes asked a local woman if there were any places
in Gulfport to get a meal, she answered, with bright, chamber-of-commerce
goodwill eyes, “Yes, there’s this great place called The Chimney …”
Then, her eyes clouded as she added, “But it’s gone now …
Everything’s gone now.” And she started to cry.
Poignancy was manifested in many ways, from mismatched
flip-flops lined up beside smashed houses, to children’s toys lodged in
the tops of trees, to a band of good-natured, benevolent, modern-day hippies
who tore about the demolished landscape distributing food and water to
workers and displaced local residents.
“The cooperative workers from Virginia, Maryland and
Delaware were extremely positive,” said Howes.
“They all had good attitudes about being there and
what they were doing in trying to help, because all of the local people were
so appreciative of their efforts. And this made the guys from up north even
more thankful for what they had back home, waiting for them. They were happy
to be on the Gulf Coast helping out, but they were all looking forward to
getting back home, back to their families,” he added.
Bo Goodin, staking engineer for Powell Valley Electric
Cooperative, summed it up this way: “It was very gratifying to be back
home with my family, but it was very depressing leaving the devastation
behind, knowing what the residents would have to endure in the coming
“I felt very proud knowing the work we did to restore
power helped improve the situations of the victims of this tragedy. Although
since returning we have a greater appreciation of being with our families
and in our homes, our thoughts and prayers are still with those people who
lost so much — their homes, possessions, and more importantly, members of