Five Years After...

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor



Richard Johnstone

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 back on.

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.



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