ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Top leaders in Missouri and Illinois, where thousands of customers remain without power after last week's winter storm, sharply criticized a utility's response to the crisis Thursday.
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt asked his state's Public Service Commission to hold public hearings and said he wants St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. to provide a clear plan for preventing a recurrence.
``People that are paying the utility bill deserve to have the consistent delivery of services,'' Blunt said at a news conference in Jefferson City. ``That's not happening with Ameren today.''
As of Thursday night, about 19,500 Ameren customers still lacked power, the bulk of them in Illinois, company officials said. At the peak, more than 500,000 Ameren customers in both states were without power.
Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn also pressed utility regulators to investigate, calling the lingering power disruptions a ``systemic failure'' despite the efforts of thousands of repair workers from 14 states.
``It's not a big surprise that Illinois and Missouri have snow and ice in the winter,'' Quinn said Thursday during a news conference in East St. Louis, Ill. ``We need to ask the question why Ameren has had such great difficulty making sure the system is reliable.''
Ameren said Thursday that it welcomed the scrutiny.
``We believe we've thrown every possible resource into this,'' utility spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said. She noted that crews trying to fix the latest power failures had installed 391 miles of wire as of Thursday morning _ more than Ameren normally uses in six months.
``Given all the storms, all the factors, there's no question there are areas for improvement,'' Gallagher said.
The storm plowed through the Midwest late last week, dropping snow and coating the region with ice before carrying wind and thunderstorms into the Northeast. At least 19 deaths in Illinois and Missouri have been blamed on the storm or the frigid weather that followed.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich this week declared 49 counties state disaster areas and on Thursday asked President Bush to declare them federal disaster areas. Blunt also hopes for a presidential disaster declaration.