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Monday, May 2, 2016

MGE official discusses tornado recovery effort

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ken Thomas, director of field operations for Missouri Gas Energy (MGE), projected images from the Joplin tornado and MGE's clean-up efforts for a meeting of the Monett Kiwanis Club, as club members looked on. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff] [Order this photo]
Ken Thomas, director of field operations for Missouri Gas Energy (MGE), described the massive clean-up effort following the May 22, 2011, tornado in Joplin as speaker at a recent Monett Kiwanis Club meeting.

Thomas, who works out of MGE's Monett office, said he has dealt with 20 tornados in his 33 years with the utility. He wasn't too alarmed when he received word of the storm at his home in Monett on Sunday, May 22.

"When I got over there the next day, I couldn't believe what I saw," Thomas said. "It was not like anything I had ever seen."

Most of MGE's service network lies underground, protecting it from storms. The Joplin tornado knocked walls from homes onto meter sets and tore a regulator station out of the ground. MGE lost about 3,500 meters, Thomas said, more than in all of Monett. To date, only 250 of those services have been restored.

"We had more damage than anything the gas business has ever experienced," Thomas said.

During the first night, MGE employees had to step over bodies to shut off the gas at St. John's Hospital. Company representatives bought an entire supply of 30 radios from a local store because no other communications system worked, and even the new radios only had a one-mile range.

"The pictures looked bad, but until you saw it close up, the pictures didn't do it justice," Thomas said.

Unlike the Pierce City tornado, which plowed a path about five blocks wide, the Joplin tornado extended a mile wide and stayed on the ground for 11 miles.

Thomas immediately called in MGE crews from St. Joseph and Kansas City as well as staff from Monett, Republic and Neosho. Crews from Kansas City and St. Louis rotated in as crews went off duty from 12-hour shifts. Initially, crews worked 16 hours at a time.

A major challenge for the utility was where to house 150 gas company employees. The nearest place with adequate housing was too far away in Branson. Thomas said they used a church and youth camp for the first week. Ozark Christian College in Joplin, which was out of session, opened its dormitories to MGE workers by the second week. MGE's initial clean-up effort lasted four weeks.

Thomas said two employees worked solely on preparing meals for the work crews. Grief counselors were brought in to help.

"It was like a war zone. Some were very affected by what they saw," Thomas said. "Several of our employees lost homes. Many had relatives who were hurt and lost homes. Everyone came to work."

Crews surveyed the ground on foot, working in four-block grids. All damaged services were shut off, due to fear of invisible underground damage. Demolision crews with augurs were also likely to cut gas lines without knowing it.

One 10-mile-long gas main was abandoned because of the way the clean-up proceeded. According to estimates, the Joplin tornado created three times the debris as the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City, Thomas said.

By the second day after the storm, residents in the nearby town of Duquesne had started burning debris. Thomas said there were still active gas leaks in the vicinity, so it was fortunate there were no incidents.

Anyone with a damaged service got billed for the last meter reading and no more. Thomas said MGE estimated its loss from the storm at about $12 million.

Crews took note of special features from the 200-mile-per-hour windstorm. Thomas said evidence of the tornado having an eye turned up in a 30-acre field where quantities of debris dropped from the sky and were compacted as tightly as any machinery could have done.

MGE is presently working with city officials to obtain demolition permits and abandon old services. Double incentives are available to customers for the purchase of energy efficient equipment.

"Even if you have emergency planning," Thomas said, "there can be some things of such magnitude where planning goes out the window. You can't plan for everything. You have to be flexible. You can't go into such a disaster with pre-conceived notions."

Thomas was introduced by Jon Suit, program chairman. Gordon Brown, Kiwanis vice president, presided at the meeting.

The Monett Kiwanis Club meets at noon on Tuesdays for a meal and a program, usually at Happy House restaurant.

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