The snow is gone. The grass is starting to turn green again. Another winter has passed; another spring is beginning to give way to summer. Our harshest season was relatively mild again this year. For that, many are thankful. Twenty years ago, it was a very different story. For many, the winter and spring of 1997 do not seem like they happened two decades ago already — the memories are still fresh and probably will be for decades to come.
A thick collection of documents, photographs, and videos at Cass County Electric Cooperative from the spring of 1997 serves as a reminder for those who were living and working in the area at the time and serves as a glance back to a trying time for those who were not.
“I still get a little emotional going through it,” says Dee DeGeest, engineering technician for CCEC.
DeGeest and several other CCEC employees still with the company played a vital role in putting the pieces back together after the worst storm situation in the cooperative’s history. Included in the collection of documents from that spring is a journal DeGeest kept during the height of the mess. She made brief notes each night before getting three or four hours of sleep. During this stretch, she was away from home for 17 days, and stories like hers are common amongst locals who were around back then.
A winter that dumped more than 100 inches of snow on the Red River Valley delivered one final blow on April 5, 1997. A steady rain turned to ice as temperatures dropped back below freezing. Winds picked up and became violent. As residents hunkered down, CCEC employees were filled with dread as they looked outside. At the office, the phones starting ringing as power outages began piling up. For thousands in the Valley, a disaster was just beginning.
For CCEC, the damage from a brutal winter capped off by the violent storm was extensive. Ice several inches thick coated power lines and equipment. Ensuing high winds resulted in 2,000 power poles snapped like twigs, often for miles-long stretches. As the storm passed, 6,500 CCEC members were without power. Worse yet, large transmission structures were left crumpled, and 13 CCEC substations were completely powerless.
Restoration work began before the storm even ended, but efforts were stymied by nature’s persistence. Crews stubborn enough to brave the conditions would re-secure damaged lines, only to watch them be blown back down minutes later. They would have to wait before making real progress.
An intensive restoration campaign was launched in the days following the storm. Crews faced ice, mud, and washed-out roads with flood waters six feet deep in some locations. Employees worked exhaustively, putting in 14-hour days while scrambling to protect their own homes from rising waters. After nearly two full weeks of work, power was restored to the last remaining members on the evening of April 17. They had been without power for 11 days. Repairs and clean up would become a major part of CCEC’s work for the remainder of the year.
Through miserable conditions and sodden destruction, the spirit of the community, even the greater region, made an unforgettable impact. Within a week of the storm striking, 150 outside employees from seven states had come to help CCEC’s restoration efforts. Stories still abound of rural members using tractors to pull co-op vehicles through roads turned to stew, volunteering motorboats to help reach poles suddenly in the middle of lakes, and delivering coffee, food, and encouragement to exhausted crews. When the Storm of the Century tore everything apart, the residents of the Valley came together.