Community bands together after ice storm knocks out all power
by Marc and Julie Anderson
NEMAHA COUNTY — How many Catholics does it take to turn on a light bulb?
If you’re talking about Nemaha and Marshall counties, the answer is “all of them.”
That’s because the job of getting the power back on in these two heavily Catholic counties after the devastating Dec. 10 ice storm was a community-wide effort.
Kathy Brinker, general manager of the Nemaha-Marshall Electric Cooperative and a member of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca, said approximately 3,000 customers lost power as a result of the ice storm. Some families contended with the cold and dark for only four days; others for up to two weeks.
It could have been longer, however.
The repair crews, which had been pulled together from several states, had to repair some 1,400 power poles. In one township alone, there were 97 poles down. When this army of professionals arrived on the scene, they found an all-volunteer army waiting to help them.
‘Never seen anything like it’
According to Brinker, the logistics of such a massive restoration effort were challenging, to say the least. When 130 linemen rolled into the area from Colorado, Mississippi, Nebraska and Texas, the first question was: Where would the linemen stay? Next, came how they would be fed, where supplies would be dropped, and how poles from Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana would make their way to Nemaha County.
As things turned out, Brinker said, the power was restored much sooner than was originally thought possible.
That was due in large part to the fact that the Nemaha folks weren’t content to sit and wait for the cavalry to arrive.
Countless men and women fired up their own tractors and trailers and started hauling poles to where they were needed.
“All the linemen had to do then was to put the pole in the ground and put the wire back on the pole itself,” Brinker said.
“Some of the linemen who usually serve in urban areas were thoroughly amazed at what the residents had done,” she added. “They said they’d never seen anything like it anywhere.”
But that was only the beginning.
The women of St. Michael Parish in Axtell provided baked goods and fruit for the linemen’s sack lunches — every day.
Other county residents made the rounds alongside the linemen, so that if one of the linemen’s trucks got stuck in a ditch, there was someone on hand with a tractor to pull them out.
Other residents frequented the cooperative’s office to find out what other electrical supplies needed to be picked up — then volunteered to drive to nearby Marysville or 60-70 miles to Topeka to pick them up, then deliver them to where they were needed.
As days turned into weeks and many of the out-of-town linemen found themselves far from home at Christmas, many residents left Christmas cards on the windshields of their trucks.
“The people in the communities truly wanted to make them feel welcome,” Brinker said simply.
Raised up right
That same spirit of cooperation, said Corning mayor Dan Rempe, was evident everywhere.
He and his wife Marlene, parishioners of St. Patrick Parish in Corning, said their greatest challenge was keeping in touch with each of the town’s 170 residents — especially the elderly — and making sure they had everything they needed.
“We made a lot of phone calls,” said Marlene. “We let them know they could come to the farmhouse because we had a generator there. Our main concern was making sure we didn’t forget anyone.”
Like the linemen, the mayor found himself with plenty of willing hands to help.
“I thank God I had so many people in town I could call on,” he said, “especially if I was busy at that particular time with the farm or someone else.”
Though grateful, Dan was not surprised.
“It’s just the way we were brought up,” he said. “And it certainly makes my job as mayor that much easier, knowing I have people I can trust to help me.”
In addition to the phone calls, Dan said he also made a lot of rounds around the county, offering to hook up his generator for a few hours at a time for those who needed it to prevent food in their refrigerators and freezers from spoiling.
One unusual house call he made was to a woman with one leg who had no way to get out of her house. Along with three other men, Dan created a sort of chair-sled by attaching a piece of plastic to the bottom of a chair, which they used to slide the woman from her house to her car, in which they were finally able to get her to a warm place.
Heat was certainly one of the main concerns during the power outage, as was food.
Some 10 days without power, said Corning residents Dennis and Louella Talley, meant eating a lot of sandwiches and canned goods, cooking on a grill, sleeping near the fireplace and piling on extra blankets at night.
Yet, through it all, the Talley family maintained a positive attitude.
“You just did what had to be done,” son Ross Talley said. “You dealt with the frozen ice on the bales and with the branches falling all around you. A person could’ve easily broke down and cried.
“But I knew the Lord would give me the strength to get through.”
That same positive attitude saw Bob and Marceil Hasenkamp through, even though their challenge, with seven kids ranging in age from 8 to 22, was a little different.
“We have a gas stove and so we were able to use that to keep the house warm,” said Marceil. “It stayed pretty warm upstairs, and the kids just piled on a lot of extra blankets whenever they went to bed downstairs.”
The St. Patrick parishioners were also among the fortunate ones to have a generator, so they were able to hook it up each day for a few hours at a time to do a little light cooking. They were also able to pump water from the well — to the house, for drinking and washing dishes — and perhaps just as importantly, to their cattle.
They burned a lot of candles for light, explained Marceil, especially after the kids returned to school and needed to complete homework.
The rustic circumstances prompted 8-year-old Josh to announce that “this is like living in the ’90s!”
A powerful lesson
All four of the Talleys’ grown children live in Nemaha County, but Ross was staying with his folks at the time the storm hit.
He’s run the gamut of emotions, he said, this past Advent and Christmas season, and believes the power outage is responsible for his new appreciation of his many blessings.
“Christmas this year was much more special,” said Ross. “There were so many emotions running wild when we did not have power. Having a sick grandma…new babies… farm chores . . . trying to keep the food cold, etc.
“To sit down and have dinner with our [extended] family — with heat, with lights, with warm food on the table — it meant so much to us.”
The power outage, he concluded, taught us all “to be thankful for what we have.”