Thursday, June 27, 2013
Ilene Powell was born in New Orleans and spent the first 50 years of her life there, working for many years in the real estate industry. But after the home of Powell and her partner, Mark Armstrong, was flooded when the levees broke in Hurricane Katrina, they decided to look for a new home away from the hurricane zone.
Since Armstrong does international sales and marketing that involves travel around the world, their search for a new home was confined to anywhere in the world. When they visited Northwest Arkansas, they fell in love with the area for its beauty and cultural offerings such as the fine restaurants, art galleries and frequent festivals that are a hallmark of Eureka Springs.
The couple bought 100 acres near Wolf Ridge above the White River, cleared a home site with a panoramic view, and built a two-story log cabin, a greenhouse and a chicken coop.
“We researched close to four years before we decided to come to this area,” said Armstrong, a native of England and naturalized citizen. “We chose a completely different way of life than living in a big city. Living in the American countryside was a dream ever since I read Old Yeller as a child. We felt like pioneers, breaking ground here and creating a build space for the house. We decided to come here because of its gorgeous natural beauty. It is becoming more and more difficult to find what we have here. When you see a bald eagle fly by when you are drinking a cup of tea in morning, you can’t put it in money terms. It is so iconically America.”
In his travels, Armstrong has often seen the consequences of uncontrolled development. He recently returned from a trip to Lima, Peru, where there has been indiscriminate expansion and air pollution is thick.
“There is something very special here in Northwest Arkansas and it needs to be preserved,” he said. “There is not a lot of this kind of environment left in the world. Why would anyone think of destroying it?”
The couple received two letters from SWEPCO in early April notifying them that their property, which is steep and prone to erosion, is on proposed routes for a 345 kilovolt transmission line with huge monopole towers 150 ft. tall, taller that SWEPCO said is needed to preserve electric reliability in the region. The proposal has caused widespread alarm for hundreds of property owners.
“We’re just one couple, but there are so many people like us who have come here for the same reason,” Armstrong said. “So many people are just petrified of what the line could do to their property. You get in your twilight years and this happens. You don’t recover from it emotionally or, sadly, economically.”
Armstrong worked hard to become a citizen. But since SWEPCO announced its plans, they have been questioning whether their rights as American citizens are being violated.
“What happened to the rights of the individual?” Armstrong asks. “Where is our right to pursue happiness? This is like a breach of the Constitution. The government is stomping on our property rights. This has caused tremendous stress on all the people who are facing destruction of their property by SWEPCO for a power line for which they have given no proof is needed. We are trying to make a living and now, all of the sudden, we have to devote a great deal of time, attention and money to this travesty. And why? It is devastating to us, devastating to the area and devastating to the local economy.
“There is a total lack of transparency in this. They say the information about why they have to do this is confidential. This is just corporate greed. Everything they have said so far doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. No one has been able to give actual facts about why this is needed. What really saddens me is I don’t see the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) really doing anything to protect the public interest. Everything I’m seeing is that the APSC is in the pocket of the utility company. How is this a commission that serves the public?”
After Katrina, the couple waged a stressful five-year battle with their insurance company to receive fair payment for their home losses. They experienced firsthand the uneven playing field between the consumer and a huge insurance company.
Now it is deja vu. They consider the loss of their home in flooding after Katrina a manmade disaster because of the incompetence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building inadequate levees. Now they feel they are facing losing their home again to a second manmade disaster.
“It was stressful and difficult to clean out everything in our home in New Orleans, like photographs, family heirlooms and artwork, and put it on the curb for a dump truck to haul away,” Powell said. “To start over here, come so far, and have our home at risk again is almost unimaginable. Once again, we have to fight another big conglomerate that has the means to do whatever it wants. In their arrogance they think they can just come in and bulldoze us down.”
Powell believes SWEPCO thought the project wasn’t going to be challenged. She is particularly annoyed at the response to a letter she sent to SWEPCO stating that the couple wouldn’t allow trespassing. SWEPCO replied they would not be coming on their property until the route was chosen.
“SWEPCO didn’t say, ‘If the project is approved’,” she said. “They said when the route was chosen. That just screams arrogance. They aren’t just trying to destroy our environment, but also our property values and our finances. It takes a mental toll.
“We made a conscious decision to move here. We could have gone anywhere in the world, and we chose this area to build our dream house to end our days here. We didn’t think it could possibly be taken from us. After Katrina you could recover and renew. This is worse than Katrina because that line, if built, will be there the rest of our lives.”
After Katrina, Powell volunteered for three years on the Citizens Road Home Action Team, which acted as advocates for people who needed help with government paperwork and insurance claims. Now she has stepped up to take a lead role with Save The Ozarks, the citizen group that has banded together to oppose the SWEPCO transmission lines. She is also co-founder of Fleur Delicious, a Eureka food and wine festival, and is burning the midnight oil working on Fleur Delicious and SWEPCO at the same time.
“Not everyone has the experience, time, energy or physical health to wage a battle like this,” she said. “SWEPCO counts on people to be worn down. We had to create awareness with our public meetings, our Facebook page, yard signs and other efforts. We have worked to publicize SWEPCO’s faulty GIS studies that resulted in not contacting every landowner. We have an obligation to educate people and help people through this. There is moral obligation to our neighbors and community to fight a morally corrupt corporation.”
The couple believe that right will prevail in the SWEPCO battle, in large part because of the remarkable way people have come together to oppose the project.
“Disasters of this magnitude do not discriminate, which is why everyone has to be afforded a voice and be heard,” Powell said.
Armstrong said what amazed him after Katrina is that it wasn’t the government that brought New Orleans back. “It was the people,” he said. “Once again we are seeing that American spirit coming together in fighting this large corporate machine ready to trample all over us.”
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