Missouri regulators criticize utility for prolonged outage; thousands still without power

Wednesday, December 6th 2006, 6:09 am
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Utility crews restoring power to thousands left in the dark after a snowstorm last week neared the homestretch Wednesday, and hoped to have the majority of customers restored by nightfall.

About 76,000 Ameren Corp. customers in Missouri and Illinois were without power for a sixth day Wednesday, most in the St. Louis area, and the utility said some rural areas might not get it back until Friday.

Residents and regulators have been frustrated with the prolonged outage. At a church shelter in Decatur, Ill., Ann Hill said she had burned through $300 set aside for her electric bill on hotels and dinners out.

``I'm broke and fed up,'' she said.

Patience was running so thin in places it was affecting utility crews. Ameren, which has been helped by thousands of out-of-state utility workers from other companies, said some of its workers had reported threats.

``Our crews have been instructed, if they feel threatened, they are to leave the area, which means further delays in restoration efforts,'' company spokeswoman Erica Abbett said. ``I know it's not what we want, and what our customers want.''

The Missouri Public Service Commission has demanded that Ameren come up with ways to prevent widespread blackouts, such as burying power lines, putting up stronger lines or getting more authority to trim trees. More than a half-million customers also lost power after summer storms.

After power is restored to all customers, Ameren will look at ``what we did right or wrong,'' Abbett said. For now, however, ``our focus is getting power restored to our customers.''

The storm plowed through the Midwest late last week, dropping ice and snow before bringing wind and thunderstorms to the Northeast. At least 18 deaths have been blamed on the storm in Illinois and Missouri. Hospitals have said dozens have been hospitalized with hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Louise Breazeale, of Decatur, Ill., was feeling a bit nostalgic about the whole situation as she and her husband used a kerosene heater to warm their two-bedroom home. The two, both 70, have gotten used to listening to their battery-powered radio, just like the old days.

``We go to bed early. Without lights or nothing, it's kind of boring. But we get by,'' she said. ``I'm not frustrated. (Utility crews) are doing the best they can. We just thank the Lord for the heater.''