A storm enters the record books, a word enters the common
lexicon, and the power of cooperative mutual aid is proven again during the
summer of 2012.
It was as if a powerful torrent
breached a massive dam in the darkness, unleashing destruction onto a
slumbering citizenry. Tearing across the landscape, though, was not a wall
of water … but of wind.
Fed generously by intense heat and smothering humidity,
this superstorm was an airborne equivalent of class 6 white water. Rushing,
surging, tearing eastward, it traveled some 800 miles over 18 hours, its
winds peaking at 91 mph in Fort Wayne, Indiana, according to the Wikipedia
page devoted to this single storm. This same source also reports that the
storm’s damage total of $2.9 billion is topped only by the 25 most damaging
Atlantic tropical cyclones on record.
In the storm’s mammoth wake were
uprooted trees, flattened street signs, tangled power lines, 22 reported
deaths and millions of power outages, from the heart of the Midwest to where
Atlantic waters lap onto the land of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Many of us learned a new word as we were reminded once
again that nature’s fury has many forms and faces, in every season. This
storm was a “derecho” (Spanish for “straight”), a fast-moving, widespread
straight-line windstorm accompanied by thunderstorms.
Across Virginia, the derecho knocked out electric service
to over 1.2 million people, including more than 150,000 electric cooperative
member-owners. Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell noted at the time that it was the
largest non-hurricane electric-service outage in Virginia’s history.
Over the next week, additional intense storms formed in
the derecho’s footprint, fanning across the landscape and causing more power
outages. Rarely have we been reminded so powerfully of how vulnerable we are
as individuals, how strong we are as a community.
While the storm’s name was not familiar, its damage
certainly was, at least to the line-crew members of Virginia’s 13 locally
owned electric cooperatives. As soon as possible after the storm passed,
cooperative line crews began the painstaking process of repairing — and
frequently rebuilding — miles upon miles of electric lines. Virginia’s
cooperatives also immediately fortified the efforts of their local crews by
bringing in additional line crews and equipment from unaffected, or
less-affected, cooperatives in other states.
On that Saturday morning, June 30, as Virginia
cooperative linemen and support staff were underway with a grueling schedule
of around-the-clock work to locate and repair the derecho’s damage, on the
way to help them were lineworkers from cooperatives in five nearby states.
Lineworkers from four additional states soon joined the wave of assistance,
ultimately creating an auxiliary army of over 300 lineworkers and over 150
specialized vehicles and equipment, from digger-derricks and bucket trucks
to pole trailers.
One of the seven cooperative principles calls for
“cooperation among cooperatives.” The derecho was powerful, but fleeting.
Cooperative mutual aid is powerful, and enduring. As are the linemen who
carry out its grueling work.
After the derecho, the home crews and assisting linemen
were not just working long hours in difficult surroundings, fighting
temperatures that topped 100 degrees each day. They were also dealing with
the physical duress of heavy tool belts — and safety helmets, clothing and
gloves — that would leave most of us in a heap. Thankfully, those few who
are able to measure up to the difficult demands of linework are highly
skilled, highly trained and highly motivated.
Countless cooperative member-owners expressed
appreciation for the extraordinary efforts of the line-crew members, in ways
as varied as the individuals themselves. Some fed the lineworkers with words
of praise: in person, through homemade signs, on social media sites. Others
fed them literally, with offers of water or food. Whatever form it took,
each outreach fed the spirits of those laboring long hours to get the power
In these uneasy times, it’s
surely a tribute to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our
nature” that five years after, the most enduring memories of the
derecho are not of its destruction, but of the sense
of community that was invoked and displayed in its aftermath.
power across the land.