An EF5 tornado tore through a major portion of the city of Joplin, Missouri, last May, leveling homes, mangling power lines and snapping utility poles. Winds in excess of 250 mph inflicted catastrophic damage on Empire District Electric Co.'s infrastructure. The twister obliterated more than 4,000 poles, damaged 100 miles of power lines, and completely destroyed a substation.

The tornado hit the city at 5:41 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, and spun forcefully on the ground for 32 minutes. Following the tornado, wood and steel poles were broken off and strewn in every direction, and transformers and pad-mount gear were ripped away from their pedestals. An enormous amount of debris covered the path of the storm. In fact, a former weatherman described the destruction as “putting Joplin into a blender.”

Assessing the Damage

After the tornado spun up into the sky, the city of Joplin was in utter chaos and resembled a war-like atmosphere. As residents tried to seek medical attention or find their loved ones, the roads became increasingly congested. Compounding the problem, the streets were covered with debris and sharp objects. As a result, it was difficult for the first responders to travel on the roads without getting a flat tire. The utility did its part to remove debris to make the streets passable for both the work crews and the local residents.

The communications systems had suffered damage, so Empire couldn't contact the linemen on their mobile phones. Thankfully, nearly all of the linemen took the initiative to come in on their own rather than waiting to be called in for storm duty. Engineers and electricians from all eight of the utility's different geographical areas also came in to help. Although many of the employees were affected personally by the tornado, they recognized the severity of the damage, and they knew they needed to be involved in the reconstruction effort.

The storm took down many circuits, and while Joplin was the largest city affected by the storm, it also impacted other suburbs to the east, such as Duquesne, Missouri. The primary focus in the beginning was safety. The field crews ensured that the energized lines laying on the ground were made safe.

On the first night, they also worked to restore service to critical facilities. The tornado completely destroyed St. John's Hospital, but the other large hospital, Freeman Hospital, was still standing but had lost power. The linemen focused on restoring power to that building as well as to the city water and sewer installations.

The utility's outage management system from Integraph allows quick assessments of damage for timely response during most outage situations. However, the magnitude of this storm was so great that the system was not usable and employees had to rely on field inspections.

Handling Manpower, Materials and Logistics

Every utility in the region offered up their services, but Empire chose to rely most heavily on Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L). This neighboring utility from Kansas City, Missouri, had worked with Empire in the past and was familiar with its work practices. KCP&L brought in management personnel to serve as a single point of contact. Empire also had only to interact with one management team, which was much more efficient.

In addition to partnering with KCP&L, Empire also worked with Springfield's City Utilities, which was very instrumental in the restoration. The utility brought in contractors such as BBC, Bison and B&L. Plus, the company called in extra crews from contractors that regularly do work on Empire's system such as PAR Electrical Contractors, Mid Central Contractors and Kenny Singer Construction. Other partners such as Wright Tree Service, ACRT and Shade Tree also sent additional resources to assist with vegetation management.

The utility has learned from experience that it's more productive to phase in outside workers. If the company brings them all on board at one time, they often stand around wondering what to do first. Through advanced planning, however, Empire was able to have the materials ready to go so the outside crews could begin work immediately.

Because of all of the workers focused on the restoration, Empire's employees faced a Herculean task when it came to finding shelter and food for the crews, who were working 16-hour days. This task was made even more challenging as so many residents were displaced and needed to find a place to stay. Thankfully, the utility had already experienced other severe weather events, so it had a time-tested emergency response plan in place.

The employees quickly secured hotel rooms, arranged for meals to be delivered into the field and scheduled laundry pickup for the work crews. At the end of the work day, Empire sent its employees out into the field to pick up the dirty laundry, get it cleaned and then bring it back the next day.

Staging Materials

After Empire got all of its resources together, it then focused on delivering materials to the workers in the field; for this, Empire relied on its Alliance Partner, Irby, which pulled supplies together and made round-the-clock deliveries.

The congested traffic situation went on for many days after the event started, and because there were no traffic signals, police officers helped to direct traffic. In the devastated area, it could take up to three hours for the drivers to make a 3-mile round trip to the main storeroom to get supplies.

To expedite the material-delivery process, Empire set up a dozen smaller staging areas, which were scattered around the impacted areas. Setting up staging areas greatly reduced how much time was spent sending the equipment and supplies back and forth. To make this process even quicker, Empire scheduled its deliveries for the nighttime when traffic was slower.

Another component vital to the utility's success was partnering with companies such as ABB/Power Partners, who helped the utility to divert stock in order to begin the restoration.

Hardening the System

With the materials on hand, the linemen began restoration. Since the tornado wiped out a large portion of the utility's infrastructure, Empire took the opportunity to harden its system. The twister wiped out poles of many different vintages, and some of the poles in the oldest part of Joplin were up to 80 years old. Over time, cable TV, telephone and fiber were added to these poles, so they were also congested.

The linemen are replacing the poles with higher-class wood poles from Bell Lumber and Pole in many areas. In some cases, these poles are taller to accommodate the different types of communications circuitry. They are also much larger in diameter, which makes them stronger.

The diameter of the pole depends on the load it has to support. For example, pole-loading factors include the size of the distribution wire, the number of communications circuits and the telephone cables.

In many areas, the linemen put the poles back into the same location. If they weren't able to put them in the same holes, however, then they had to turn to underground locators in the Joplin area. Empire contracts with an outside firm, United States Infrastructure Corp., to perform underground locates and identify buried infrastructure. This tornado has placed a significant strain on the outside firm's resources, and it continues to be a long process as rebuilding occurs.

The utility is using fiberglass and wood crossarms from Pennington Crossarm. In addition, the field crews are installing different protective devices, including fuses and reclosers from a variety of manufacturers. The advantage of the reclosers is that when a fuse is blown, the load is lost until a workman can get back out to the site. Many faults on a power system are temporary, and by using more reclosers, it greatly reduces the number of long-term outages.

In addition, Empire's engineers have designed the system differently as far as the location of its main feeders and subfeeders to ensure a more reliable system. The linemen also arranged the circuits in a different manner to allow the field crews to more effectively serve areas in the future.

Building a Bigger and Better Substation

In addition, the utility is working on completely rebuilding a substation, which was destroyed by the tornado. This 1926 substation was built out of lattice steel, and the high winds completely mangled it.

The substation became extremely congested because over time, the linemen and electricians had installed more and more equipment on the site. As a result, it had too small of a footprint for the equipment it had to support.

The substation was adjacent to St. Mary's Catholic Church, which was destroyed. The church chose not to rebuild at the same location, so the utility purchased the property from them. The company then applied for a rezoning and city permit to rebuild a new, larger substation on that new site. This new substation will accommodate 161 kV rather than 69 kV. It will also feature a more modern design and a more streamlined look. Instead of featuring lattice steel, it will be built to modern standards and support a higher-voltage transmission line.

Building for the Future

As of the first quarter of 2012, a major amount of infrastructure is already in place, and a bulk of the overhead lines have been reconstructed. The linemen installed the majority of the lines overhead rather than underground, as is the company's standard practice.

The linemen in Empire's Joplin district and in Webb City are dedicated to the continuous restoration effort. The utility is also working with crews from other areas of the company as well as contractors, including PAR Electrical Contractors.

The recovery is going exceedingly well in Joplin. In fact, a report at the end of December stated that 50% of the homes and businesses that were destroyed have applied for building permits. Also, about 80% of the businesses that were displaced from the storm have either reopened in the same location or in a new location.

While the rebuilding is good news for the city of Joplin, it presents challenges to Empire. Many building contractors have come into Joplin, and they are often not familiar with how Empire provides power to its customers. As a result, the company requested a list of the 1,800 contractors who are registered to help with construction in Joplin. The utility then sent them letters and held meetings to help them understand Empire's mission and educate them on how they can provide timely service to their customers once the homes and businesses are rebuilt.

In the future, the company expects to see more and more projects under construction. Residents are building replacement homes, some schools still need to be rebuilt and a new hospital will open its doors in 2015.

While the city still has a long way to go, it has made a lot of significant strides toward total reconstruction. Through total commitment from its field crews, mutual aid workers and suppliers, Empire District Electric is helping Joplin to return to a state of normalcy and provide the power to rebuild.


Martin Penning (mpenning@empiredistrict.com) is the vice president of commercial operations for Empire District Electric. He has been with the company for 32 years and served as the director of operations for both the east and west side of the company. In addition, he has served as the director of engineering for the utility.

Empire's Severe Weather History

Unfortunately, the May 22 tornado wasn't the first twister that Empire District Electric Co. has faced over its 100-year history. Over the years, the utility has withstood several tornadoes and ice storms.

  • May 2003 — A tornado in Carl Junction, Missouri, left about 30,000 without service.
  • July 2004 — Severe storms throughout the area left about 35,000 without service.
  • July 2005 — Severe storms in Oklahoma and Arkansas left about 1,000 without service.
  • January 2007 — An ice storm affecting the east end of Empire's service territory left about 85,000 without service.
  • December 2007 — An ice storm affecting the west end of Empire's service territory left about 61,000 without service.
  • February 2008 — An ice storm left about 3,400 without service.
  • May 2008 — A tornado affecting the Neosho, Granby and Diamond areas left about 14,000 without service.
  • May 2009 — An inland hurricane affecting the west end of Empire's territory left about 71,000 without service.
  • May 2011 — An EF5 tornado impacting Joplin left about 20,000 without service.

Fast Facts:

  • Empire District Electric is headquartered in Joplin, Missouri, and serves approximately 166,000 electric customers in four states: Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The company has about 700 employees.
  • About 4,000 transmission and distribution poles and 100 miles of line were damaged or destroyed in the tornado.
  • Originally 31 out of 60 circuits in Joplin were out, affecting between 8,000 and 10,000 customers. At the peak, 20,000 customers were out of power.
  • At this time, the company has reconnected all but about 4,000 customers. Not all customers have rebuilt their homes and required service, but the utility was able to retain some customers when they purchased or rented homes in their service territory.
  • Empire's employees booked 2,400 room nights, arranged for 13,000 meals and had 2,700 lbs of laundry cleaned for the work crews over nine days.
  • Even though the linemen were working under dangerous conditions, they were able to stay safe on the job site. During the restoration, the company only had 10 injuries.
  • Vital to the utility's success were the volunteers. In the first eight months, more than 118,000 volunteers (registered through AmeriCorps and from other organizations) offered help to the reconstruction in Joplin. Nearly a year later, volunteer efforts continue.

Companies mentioned:

ABB | www.abb.com

ACRT | www.acrtinc.com

AmeriCorps | www.americorps.gov

BBC Electrical Services Inc. | bbcelectrical.com

Bell Lumber and Pole | www.blpole.com

B&L Electric Inc. | www.bandlelectric.net

City Utilities | cityutilities.net

Empire District Electric Co. | www.empiredistrict.com

Kansas City Power & Light | kcpl.com

Mid Central Contractors | midcentralcontractors.com

PAR Electrical Contractors Inc. | parelectric.com

Pennington Crossarm Co. | www.crossarms.com

The Shade Tree Service Co. | www.stsco.net

Stuart C. Irby Co. | www.irby.com

United States Infrastructure Corp. | www.usic.com

Wright Tree Service | www.wrighttree.com

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