Saturday, July 29, 2006

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Gemini Storms Batter Region But Fail To Break Our Spirit

Sometimes I think of God as an old cobbler, mending “soles” worn down by life. He carries their weight on his back…an impossibly large collection of old shoes. Then as He goes from place to place, he sometimes stops and has us try them on…just to give us a chance to walk for a while in someone else’s shoes.

On July 20 and 21, 2006 a large part of St. Charles and much of the St. Louis region got a wake up call from mother nature and came to appreciate, with a little more clarity, the suffering experienced by those left in the wake of great storms like Katrina.

Unlike the great hurricanes that batter our coasts, large storms here go nameless. One particularly brutal storm that hit St. Louis in the 19th Century to this day is referred to as The Great Cyclone. I decided someone needed to start naming our bigger storms. With the one-two punch of these back-to-back storms, I propose referring to them as the Gemini Storms. Besides, it sounds a lot more ominous than Amanda or Bertha, or whatever part of the alphabet the latest hurricane may fall on.

We can in no way compare what happened here directly to the areas of the world that have experienced massive loss of life from natural disasters. We came through with a minimum number of casualties, save our shaken pride in all things electric. But hundreds of thousands of our neighbors and friends learned something of what it’s like to be displaced persons, without the surety we once had that a cool home, clean water, electronic entertainment, e-mail and even workable cell phones would always be there for us.

As I write this column a week later, some of our residents are still without power. Those who had electric meters torn from their homes by falling limbs are told by Ameren they have to hire private electricians to make the repairs. Needless to say those private electricians are very busy. One retired resident reported an Ameren worker simply taped off the end of the downed wire and told them not to have anyone touch it! They didn’t take the time to loop it up and place it somewhere high on the structure till the private electrician could get there.

Overwhelmed by work, perhaps shortcuts were taken, but ones that could put the life of a child at risk are not acceptable. Ameren regrettably lost one of their own workers to just such a downed wire.

Everyone has their own story of “survival” and how the Gemini Storms disrupted their lives. We were more fortunate than many families. Our power only went out after the second storm and was back on in about two hours. My in-laws, part of the mass exodus from St. Louis after the first storm, were staying with us and my parents stayed with my brother to keep cool. Unlike New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina, where refugees had to leave for other states, those areas hit less hard in St. Louis and St. Charles were able to provide shelter with relatives or friends for many.

Still, I am told hotels were full as far as Cape Girardeau from the massive number of people without power in St. Louis. Every convenience store with power looked like a refugee center with people looking for ice, basic essentials and asking if clerks knew of any hotels in the area with rooms.

Haggard, tired, aggravated and hot, tempers began to flare. After the second storm, when traffic signals were down, we had reported fistfights between drivers at highway interchanges in St. Charles. My wife Sue had her own brush with people’s frayed nerves. She stopped by a local convenience store and bought a gallon of milk only to have an exasperated woman behind her exclaim loudly, “That #*&+! just got the last gallon of milk!” Getting cursed at the check-out isn’t something we’re use to.

Fortunately, the vast majority of stories are about the good side of human nature. People dealt with the heat in different ways, with a great deal of stoicism. They looked after one another. They looked in on elderly neighbors. They pitched in to help clean things up.

Our own City employees on call were phenomenal. I can’t say enough about their dedication to duty, professionalism or concern shown for people. My hat’s off to our City Firefighters, Paramedics, Police, Dispatchers, Street Department Crews, Water and Sewer workers. I don’t have room in this column to relate all of the compliments I heard from people about these individuals responding quickly, working in stifling heat, working long hours or going the extra mile. Just one brief example would be a female firefighter on a crew responding to a call from a Senior about downed wires. She cut the limbs away from the downed wire to secure it. Then she took the time to haul the large branches to the street, seeing that the Senior might have had trouble getting it done.

I think we also appreciate what the vast majority of Ameren’s employees went through, but that doesn’t temper my feelings towards the management of this utility company. Acts of God are going to happen. But cutting tree trimming to the bone to drive up company profits, and cutting back on essential levels of employees to adequately respond to emergencies, is as criminally negligent as Ameren’s negligence in the case of the Taum Sauk dam failure.

To try to put in perspective what that negligence has cost, I heard from a reliable source that 40 supermarkets in one chain were without power for more than three hours, necessitating throwing out all meat, dairy and other refrigerated foods. The plight of grocery stores like these, restaurants and convenience stores, mirrored the waste experienced by individual customers. Take 600,000 homes without power times an average of just $100 in spoiled food. That comes to $60 MILLION taken out of the pockets of Ameren customers. I couldn’t even begin to calculate the lost wages and productivity experienced by area businesses.

Did I mention Ameren UE on July 7th filed for a rate increase that will cost the average residential consumer over $700 more per year? Maybe we could get Dorothy to drop a house on them in the next storm.