St. Louis Suffers Through Heat Wave Without Power

The National Guard is evacuating residents of St. Louis who are sweltering in the summer heat without power for fans or air conditioning. A dangerous storm lashed the city Wednesday and power isn't expected to be restored for many until next week.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Summer weather has left people in the dark and sweltering in two major U.S. cities. A blackout in New York's borough of Queens has left up to 20,000 customers without power for six days now. A series of Con Edison circuits failed after the state set a record for electricity use during a heat wave. In St. Louis, the weather is cooler now, but hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses still have no power after a series of summer thunderstorms. The first brought down power lines Wednesday. Residents hope for quick relief but power company Ameren UE says it could be days before everyone is back online.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

It's busy in Ameren's emergency operation center. It's where workers coordinate all the logistics for the utility crews struggling to restore power to thousands of dark homes and businesses. At the front of the room, a large computer map of Missouri and Illinois updates every 10 minutes...

Mr. RON ZDELLAR (Vice President, Energy Delivery, Ameren UE): What we're looking at right now here is the customer outages and the various kinds of divisions that we have.

CORLEY: Ron Zdellar, an Ameren vice president, says the red blotches that cover large sections of the region show the impact and the route of the blustery, rainy weather that knocked out power for so many, in what the utility is calling the worst storm season it's ever seen.

Mr. ZDELLAR: Well, basically this storm that came through Wednesday night came from the northeast, pretty much came down the Mississippi River. It just crashed right through the St. Louis metropolitan area like it was a bull's eye.

CORLEY: Utility crews from several states have joined in the effort to restore power. Ameren Senior Vice President Richard Mark says utility linemen and tree trimmers are going through a careful procedure, checking and repairing any faulty power lines, fuses and sub stations.

Mr. RICHARD J. MARK (Senior Vice President, Missouri Energy Delivery, Ameren UE): It's a very lengthy process. And when you have a storm like this that does such severe damage, usually all of those devices are blown or ripped apart. And so you have to just systematically replace them as you work your way down the length of the system to each individual home.

CORLEY: Ameren was making some headway. It had hoped to have about half of those without power back online by today. But yesterday was a setback.

(Soundbite of thunder and heavy rain)

CORLEY: Heavy rain and fierce wind blew off roofs and sent trees and other objects spinning into power lines. Two hundred thousand Ameren customers, some who had just had power restored, lost their electric service again, bringing the total back up to more than a half million. With the storm, however, came a cold front and more bearable temperatures. Caroline Peterson(ph), who was picking up tree limbs in her yard yesterday, says the storm was good for the area.

Ms. CAROLINE PETERSON (Resident): It's a good thing. It really is. It's not bad at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Still without power, though.

Ms. PETERSON: Yeah, still without power, still without the necessities. You had to throw some food away, you know.

CORLEY: But at least it's cool.

Ms. PETERSON: It's cool.

CORLEY: Not far from Peterson's house, business is brisk at the Elite Meat and Grocery Store.

Mr. MIKE ELDUNE(ph) (Elite Meat and Grocery Store): Need the power.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. ELDUNE: Need the power.

CORLEY: Mike Eldune has lost all his meat and perishables. He sold out of ice. And unless he gets power soon, he'll run out of other grocery items.

Mr. ELDUNE: We try and get like soda and some stuff. But I cannot get any order to the store.

CORLEY: Authorities expect total damages to be extensive. Both Missouri Governor Matt Blunt and President Bush have declared the region a disaster area. The heat wave caused at least four deaths, and the governor called in the Missouri National Guard to help police and firefighters check in on the elderly and vulnerable.

The Guard has also been assisting in clean-up efforts. As trucks lined up in one St. Louis neighborhood, National Guard Lieutenant Michael Pearson(ph) says they were just about ready to haul the debris they had collected to a dump site.

Lieutenant MICHAEL PEARSON (Missouri National Guard): The city told us that it's going to take us a while to do it, and I understand, you know, with many trees that are down. We're trying to get the city caught up. You know, when they can say, you know, we can get it done in a certain amount of time, then we can go.

CORLEY: Although it's cooler now, Pearson says the unit knows about working in heat after serving time in Iraq and helping with the disaster efforts in New Orleans. Meantime, Ameren says it hopes to restore power as quickly as possible, but it could be many days yet. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, St. Louis.

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