Winter storms in February blanketed parts of Tennessee with ice, enough to bring down nearly 1,000 poles, cause more than $10 million in damage and leave thousands in the dark during some of the coldest temperatures of the year.
It began on Feb. 15 with a widespread storm covering much of the state in snow and ice. Before that ice melted, another storm hit on Feb. 20-21. The combination of ice and wind left several of our electric cooperatives with damage and outages. Crews began repairs immediately, restoring power as quickly and as safely as possible.
The Cumberland Plateau was hit the hardest with an inch of ice accumulation — far exceeding weight tolerances for the electric infrastructure. High winds compounded the strain, resulting in fallen tree limbs, downed power lines and broken poles.
Cumberland County Emergency Management officials called it “the worst natural disaster in the history of Cumberland County.” Veteran emergency responders said the damage was comparable to an EF-2 tornado ravaging the entire county.
Clyde Jolley, longtime Volunteer Energy Cooperative employee, said, “In my 42 years with VEC, this is one of the worst weather events I’ve ever seen. We had more than 700 broken poles and an estimated $9.5 million in damage to the system.”
At the peak of the storm, some 40,000 VEC members lost power in Cumberland, Fentress, Putnam, Overton and Bledsoe counties. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s transmission line outages caused a loss of power to five VEC substations, and major breakers were lost at three other substations.
Nature can destroy in a few hours what took years to build. The challenge was to rebuild it in a matter of days. Because co-op members were dealing with subfreezing temperatures, power had to be restored as quickly as possible. Before the storm left the area, VEC employees were already hard at work for their members. The first effort was to call for assistance from neighboring cooperatives.
The hallowed cooperative principle of Cooperation Among Cooperatives took center stage from the beginning of the storm until the last member was reconnected many days later.
VEC received assistance from crews from Appalachian Electric Cooperative, Athens Utility Board, Caney Fork Electric Cooperative, Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation, Fort Loudoun Electric Cooperative, Holston Electric Cooperative, Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation, Rockwood Electric Utilities, Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative and Upper Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation as well as contract crews from Davis Elliott, Galloway, MPS, Seelbach and Service Electric.
At the height of the restoration efforts, 60 line crews and 35 tree-trimming groups were working 16-hour shifts to access and repair damaged equipment.
Co-op members, many of whom were without power for days, recognized the difficulty of the situation and the effort that VEC was making. Here is a sampling from a couple of online comments:
“Thank you, VEC, for all the work your crews have endured the past few weeks. Also very thankful for all the other co-ops that came to assist.”
“After the extent of the damage of this storm, the speed of recovery by VEC has been miraculous! I’m shocked we were only without power for five days. Your recovery effort seemed extremely well-executed. Thanks so much!”
VEC President/CEO Rody Blevins said 650 people were on the scene working to restore power and were supported by dozens of other staff members.
“We appreciate the hard work of our folks and the help we received from around the region,” Blevins said. “And we especially appreciate the patience and support from all our members who were affected by this devastating storm.
“This has been one of the most challenging weather events in the history of Volunteer Energy Cooperative, and we are very grateful for the cooperation, dedication and patience of everyone involved.”
The members of Volunteer Energy Cooperative can attest to the fact that Cooperation Among Cooperatives isn’t just a mantra; it’s how we co-ops do business.