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Local emergency responders on East Coast duty, residents here worry about relatives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 30, 2012 - St. Louisan Sara Howard is watching the news closely for more information about Superstorm Sandy. While her New Jersey siblings, parents and extended family are mostly all accounted for, the family is concerned about Howard's aunt in Union Beach.

Last night, Howard’s parents learned through text messages that the aunt had lost power but was otherwise OK. But no one has received any word since.

“I don’t want to overreact. I’m assuming we haven’t been able to get in touch with her because the power is out and cell phone towers are damaged,” Howard said. “But we’ll all just feel a lot better once we hear from her.”

As Howard and other local residents with East Coast loved ones worry about their safety, St. Louis-area responders are there, assisting storm victims.

Two hundred Ameren employees and contractors were sent yesterday to join 200 others already stationed in Somerset, N.J., to aid the state’s PSEG electric company. Another contingent is on the way now to Woodbridge, N.J., for a total of up to 500 dispatched Ameren workers, including support personnel responsible for housing and feeding the crew members and repairing the trucks.

The bulk of on-the-ground work involves cleaning up debris, and repairing lines and poles, according to Dave Wakeman, Ameren’s vice president of delivery services.

“They’re clearing trees out of the way, getting (rid of) any pieces of sheds or houses that blew into the lines, getting the poles back in the ground if they're broken or just getting the wires back up,” Wakeman said.

While the situation is hazardous, the crews face no more peril than they might in any local storm.

“They shouldn’t be in any danger,” Wakeman said. “These are highly skilled and trained individuals.”

The assistance from Ameren is part of a mutual aid program involving utility companies around the country.

“When we need it, they come and help us,” Wakeman said.

Also in connection with the mutual aid program, a Kirkwood Electric crew left for Springfield, Ohio, yesterday. Kirkwood is the only local municipality with its own electric utility.

Local Red Cross on the scene, others ready to go

Fourteen local volunteers of the Greater St. Louis Region of the American Red Cross are providing aid in New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland. They are part of a 1,700-member Red Cross group descending on the East Coast from all over the country. Other local Red Cross volunteers are taking emergency supplies up the coast from the St. Louis warehouse, one of only five major storage facilities in the country.

Some local Red Cross teams are working in emergency response vehicles. In places where residents can make their way to assistance, the vehicles are parked. Other teams are driving around to help those in need, according to Cindy Erickson, regional CEO of the Red Cross.

“They will help find shelter, provide food and emotional support, and help them get a plan together about, ‘What do I do now that I’ve been through this devastating storm?’” Erickson said.

More local Red Cross volunteers may join those already in place.

Fifteen Americorps members are standing by to leave for the hardest-hit areas of the East Coast including cities in New York and New Jersey, according to executive director Bruce Baily. 

“We’re all packed up right and now just trying to figure out how widespread and how serious the impact is, and exactly where our services are needed the most,” Baily said.

In New York City, local theater company founder Joan Lipkin, who divides her time between there and St. Louis, still has power but said she’s “shaken up.” Holed up in a 14th-floor apartment a few blocks from where her elderly parents live on the Upper West Side, Lipkin worries about the possibility of their losing electricity.

With construction debris and outdoor furniture and plants flying about in high winds, Lipkin is concerned about making it to her parents’ 18th-floor place. But she’ll brave the weather and other obstacles to walk there, and up 18 flights of stairs, if becomes necessary.

“Right now, I’m just really counting my blessings. But I’m concerned about whether things are going to continue this way or not,” Lipkin said.

Like Lipkin, many St. Louisans in New York are experiencing more worry and inconvenience than destruction. Paul Lockhart-Korris has electricity but he had to walk 15 blocks from his West Side apartment to find an open store with chicken breasts to cook for friends stranded in his apartment.

Barnard University student Hannah Novack from Clayton also has electricity. She and her friends didn’t have class today and with the subway closed, travel is limited. But Novack said downed trees in her area have been cleared and life is getting back to normal.

“It was kind of crazy. And the subway may not run for several days,” Novack said. “But everyone I’ve talked with is fine and I think we may have class tomorrow.”

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