Ameren bears brunt of complaints for power outages

BY KIT WAGAR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

From the governor and utility regulators to customers throughout the St. Louis area, everyone, it seems, is mad at Ameren Corp.

For the second time in less than six months, hundreds of thousands of Ameren customers lost electric power for days after storms pummeled the St. Louis area. The storms and resulting outages left 21 people dead in Missouri — 10 during the July heat wave and at least 11 in this month’s cold snap. And the latter number is likely to rise. As of Dec. 8, another seven cold-weather deaths were under investigation by St. Louis Health Department. Two other storms, one in 2004 and one in 2005, left large outages as well.

This month’s storm, which left 520,000 Ameren customers in Missouri and Illinois without heat amid single-digit temperatures, marked the fourth widespread power outage in St. Louis in three years. And it has raised new questions about the reliability of Ameren’s service.

Lewis Mills Jr., who represents consumers on utility issues as Missouri’s public counsel, said the repeated outages demonstrate that something is wrong. He pointed to the case of a man living in Potosi who has grown so frustrated with Ameren’s repeated outages that he filed a formal case at the Public Service Commission asking to have his service switched back to Black River Electric Cooperative.

“With four huge, extended outages, by definition, there’s a problem,” Mills said “The bottom line is, what they’re doing is not good enough. These are not all once-a-century storms. This is the Midwest. We have storms. A Midwest utility needs to be able to cope with that.”

As power lines began crashing on Dec. 1, the Jewish community joined the effort to help people left without electricity and heat.

The Cedars, a nursing home and assisted living center at the Jewish Center for the Aged in Chesterfield, took in several dozen people whose homes lost power. Randy Delkus, the Cedars’ chief executive officer, said extra beds were brought into residents’ rooms so spouses or family members displaced by the storm could spend the time with their loved ones.

Other refugees from the storm slept on roll-away beds brought into conference rooms that had been turned into temporary living quarters, he said. With its kosher kitchen, The Cedars also was able to meet the dietary needs of people forced to leave their homes, Delkus said.

The facility, which has diesel-powered generators to provide emergency power, never lost electricity during the storm. The biggest problem, he said, was helping the roughly 100 workers on each shift reach the facility.

At the Jewish Community Center, Karen Berry Elbert and her staff began spot checks of elderly people living in a three-mile area just north of Creve Coeur. Elbert is manager of the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community program, which coordinates services for some 1,900 elderly people in the area to help them stay at home and active in the community.

Elbert said the checks found only one person who lost power, and she chose to hunker down at home. The situation was far worse last July, when dozens of people lost power during the extended heat wave.

Elbert said her program contacted residents’ relatives and brought other people to the Jewish Community Center, which was designated as an official cooling center. Most of all, the program connected people with their neighbors, which allowed residents to look out for each other, she said.

But the repeated outages are taking their toll.

“I think anyone would tell you it is getting pretty old,” Elbert said. “As a professional in service to older adults, I consider the outages especially worrisome because many of these people are frail, they are on oxygen or they live in a building where suddenly the elevator won’t work.”

In the most recent round of storms several synagogues including Congregation Bais Menachem, Temple Israel and B’nai El lost power for a time.

Ameren says it is as much a victim of four vicious storms as the customers who suffered through sweltering heat waves without air conditioning and spent up to a week without heat in subfreezing temperatures.

Spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said the company invested $2.6 billion to upgrade its distribution system in Missouri in the last five years. To reduce the chance of falling tree limbs taking out power lines, the company boosted its tree-trimming budget by 36 percent, from $23.5 million in 2004 to $32 million this year, she said.

Ameren has improved its response to major storms, Gallagher said. The company now operates mobile command centers to take electric wire, transformers and other supplies to locations near the damage. After this month’s storm, she said, the company replaced 1,700 damaged poles and installed 391 miles of power line — six month’s worth of wire in six days. The company coordinated 7,000 repairmen from 14 states and restored power to 80 percent of its Missouri customers within five days.

“We’ve done an excellent job with this storm,” Gallagher said. “We always look for ways to improve, but we executed our plan effectively…This was a very serious weather system. We were prepared.”

But customers, elected officials and state regulators take a dimmer view.

Jeff Davis, chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities and sets their rates, has said Ameren’s excuse that storms just happen isn’t good enough when used more than once a decade.

The commission gave Ameren 30 days to submit a plan to avoid mass outages. In Illinois, regulators ordered staff to draw up plans to investigate Ameren’s preparations for the storm and its response to the outages.

The storm, which dumped more than a foot of snow on much of western and central Missouri, hit the St. Louis area on Nov. 30 with sleet and freezing rain before turning to snow. The storm damaged trees, snapped utility poles and pulled down power lines.

By Dec. 1, about 285,000 Ameren customers in Missouri had lost power. The storm wrecked similar havoc in Illinois, where 235,000 Ameren customers lost power.

By Dec. 5, more than 7,000 workers were repairing Ameren’s system. But 100,000 Illinois customers and 80,000 Missouri customers were still without power. Not until Dec. 8 was power restored to nearly all customers in both states.

The storm’s toll was harsh. In addition to at least 21 deaths, nearly four dozen people in the St. Louis area were treated at hospitals for carbon dioxide poisoning from using portable generators indoors. Another 13 were treated for the effects of the cold.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt demanded that Ameren develop a plan to deal with severe storms in the future. Spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said the governor was not downplaying the severity of the storm. But outages at other power companies were shorter and far less widespread, she said.

“The cost to the taxpayers is significant,” Robinson said. “If Ameren believes there is no solution, then the governor wants that clearly stated. If Ameren needs certain tools to avoid this, the state needs to be aware of that. But he believes we need to put a stop to what is becoming a deadly trend.”

Gallagher, Ameren’s spokeswoman, said Ameren’s performance in getting nearly all 520,000 customers’ power restored in a week was much better than the average of eight to 10 days for an outage of that size.

After a severe ice storm in 2002, it took Kansas City Power & Light 10 days to restore power for 305,000 customers, she said. Later that year, Carolina Power needed eight days to restore power after storms knocked out power for 561,000 customers.

Ameren executives pointed to a report on the July storms issued last month by the PSC staff. It gave the company relatively high marks for its response to the hurricane-force winds that knocked out power to more than 600,000 Missouri customers.

“It was one of the most destructive storms in the last 100 years,” Gallagher said. “I don’t know how you build a system to withstand that.”

Within six days, seven of every nine customers had their power restored and all customers had regained power after nine days.

Delkus said The Cedars lost power for three days after the July storms, but maintained services by relying on emergency generators. That allowed the facility to provide an air-conditioned shelter for neighbors who had lost power.

He credited The Cedars’ new facility, which opened in 2003, for weathering the storms fairly unscathed. And there was even an ironic benefit to this year’s storms, he said.

“People staying here because their home lost power got a much bigger exposure to how we operate on a 24-hour basis,” Delkus said. “Now we’re getting more requests from those people to volunteer here.”

Both the 2004 and 2005 storms knocked out power to about 220,000 customers. Nearly all customers had their power restored within 72 hours, the report said.

Robert Burns, a senior research specialist at the National Regulatory Research Institute in Columbus, Ohio, is conducting a study on how power companies manage outages and restore power. He said it is difficult to say whether Ameren’s repeated outages are worse than power failures at utilities in other parts of the country. Each state gathers slightly different data on outages.

But one detail is clear: Consumers are more reliant on electricity than ever before. And they are less tolerant of a long outage, he said. Life has become so automated that without electrical power, everything halts. Traffic lights go out. Elevators don’t work. Gas pumps stop pumping. Computers go dead.

Utilities, Burns said, need to invest in systems that allow officials to see where the outages are and to provide customers with an estimate of when the power will be back on.

“The cost of a power outage to the public has gone up,” Burns said. “People really can’t tolerate outages for a long period…Companies have to give people enough information to plan.”

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