After a year of relentless calamity for electric cooperatives—from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic to a punishing season of hurricanes and storms in the south to hellish wildfires in the northwest—weary workers can take heart: for co-ops, help will come without hesitation.
Roman Gillen, CEO of
Consumers Power Inc. in Philomath, Oregon, says that phrase, without hesitation, conveys a deep meaning for him.
On the surface, the words describe how volunteer line crews from four other co-ops rushed to Gillen’s urgent call for help in restoring power after Labor Day fires incinerated about 75 percent of the Consumer Power system that was within the fire zone.
But Gillen says the meaning of the words and their impact are more profound.
Even months later, you can hear it when he describes what it looked like when he surveyed the co-op’s service territory in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 7 Santiam Canyon inferno. About 850 homes were damaged or destroyed, leaving surreal scenes with twisted car frames still in driveways and mangled swing sets in backyards.
As bad as the scene was, what moves Gillen most is the response when they reached out for help from
Hood River Electric Cooperative,
Midstate Electric Cooperative, and
Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative.
“There was no hesitation,” he says. “They all said, yes. Within two hours they were on the way with four full crews, committed for a week and more if we needed it. We got all the help we needed, and that chokes me up. It goes beyond a mutual aid agreement.”
‘You just go’
While the Oregon crews were working ankle deep in smoldering, ash-covered ground to set poles and stretch wires, in southeast Texas, another co-op lineworker, 28-year-old Justin Smith, was recovering from injuries he’d sustained doing his part to restore a storm-stricken system.
In late August, Category-4 Hurricane Laura pounded through
Jasper-Newton Electric Cooperative’s territory, knocking out power to 21,000 in its furious wake.
Smith was riding out the storm at his mother’s house close to the co-op, because he knew he’d be needed as soon as it was safe to work. But in the middle of the storm, a neighbor called: “Justin, a tree’s fallen on your house.”
During a lull as the hurricane eye was passing, Smith rushed home, where he found limbs poking through the shattered roof.
“Everything was soaking wet,” he recalls. “There was insulation all over.”
But rather than stay to repair damage, he quickly shoved valuables and other items into dry rooms. Then, he went to work.
“When you got 20,000 people out, you put yourself aside. You just go,” he says. “There was nothing else I could do.”
While working to restore power, Smith was badly injured when an oak tree he was cutting off a line broke in half and sent a 10-foot section onto his foot. The impact snapped three bones and mangled ligaments.
Now it was Smith’s turn to receive support.
When Beech Grove Volunteer Fire Department crews learned what had happened, they quickly arranged a benefit fish fry for Smith and asked the community to help:
“This young man went to work to restore OUR electricity while leaving his house destroyed by Hurricane Laura,” they wrote on their department Facebook page. “He … can’t work and is faced with a coming surgery and rehabilitation. So let’s show Justin and his family what it means to be supportive and appreciative of him, his chosen profession, and his situation.”
It seems the act of helping without hesitation is contagious.
Last month as Gillen watched the rebuilding of CPI’s system, he said the message was indelible: “If you need help, we are going to come running to your aid.”
Smith said he will always be in the debt of those who gave him a hand. He’s looking forward to March, when his rehabilitation ends and he can return to work on the line.
“I’ll be there, whenever or wherever I am needed.”
Know someone RE Magazine could profile for our “Front Lines” column? We’re looking for co-op operations and member services staffers, from meter readers to lineworkers to engineers, who make things work at electric co-ops nationwide. Contact us at
firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can reach writer George Stuteville directly at