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Storm Stories

America’s nearly 1,000 electric cooperatives helped write a success story this fall when they worked together to restore power after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Careful planning, adapting to developing situations, and focusing on safety helped electric cooperative workers bring the power back on for member customers in an orderly manner.

Stan Rucker, vice president for Safety and Loss Control for the Electric Power Associations of Mississippi, says, “We have a plan and we know what to do. We know our counterparts in other states personally, and mutual aid between co-ops is a normal part of our way of doing business.”

Before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the northern Gulf region on August 29, statewide electric cooperative associations in dozens of states put their plans into action.

David White, safety instructor for the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives, says, “Days before Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, we had a telephone conference with people from the statewide associations where damage was expected. As we listened to each other, Kentucky was designated to help Mississippi, and other states were matched with other affected areas. This coordination helped us aim our resources in one direction.”

Eventually, electric co-ops in 15 states would send workers to Mississippi. The planning included making sure there were enough crews staying at home to handle any emergencies that might come up in Kentucky.

The co-op communication network for responding to a disaster is shaped somewhat like an hourglass. At the wide top, all the individual co-ops in an affected state report their needs to one statewide coordinator in the middle. That person passes along requests to a single person in another state. Then, the network of communications widens out again, as individual co-ops report to their own statewide coordinator on how many workers and trucks they have available to help.

Before the storm, states expecting damage also arranged for supplies (such as rail cars of poles, transformers, and cables) to be brought to nearby staging areas, so these items would be available as soon as repairs could begin. Co-ops expecting damage also contacted their usual independent contractors to be ready to work on jobs such as clearing debris.

After Katrina passed, damage assessment revealed stunning problems.

Mississippi’s Rucker reports, “At peak outage, we had 480,000 meters without service. Damage extended throughout the entire state of Mississippi. Our only generation and transmission co-op experienced damage, and every one of our 25 distribution co-ops experienced damage. Nineteen of those co-ops required outside assistance to restore power.”

Coast Electric Power Association, which includes the Bay St. Louis area, lost more than 30,000 poles. Their normal workforce includes 218 people. At the peak of damage repairs, more than 2,600 outside workers helped them make repairs. In many other Mississippi co-ops, more than 1,000 outside workers arrived to help local employees restore service.

Nineteen of Kentucky’s 23 distribution co-ops were able to send crews to Mississippi. Kentuckian Chris Burden, operations supervisor in the Morgantown District for Warren RECC, was part of an eight-man crew that drove to Mississippi with two bucket trucks, a digger truck, and a pickup truck.

Burden says, “We left Kentucky on August 29, the day Katrina came ashore. Driving into Mississippi was a problem, because just south of Jackson, there was no power on anywhere. Getting fuel for our trucks was the problem—we had to find a place with a generator that could provide power for the fuel pumps.

“When we arrived at Waynesboro,” Burden says, “there was a local man waiting to lead us to our work site. This is common in our industry—we call such a leader our ‘bird dog.’ He also taught us how to walk through the woods properly, what to listen for and look for to be aware of the rattlesnakes. The terrain there is totally different from where we work in Kentucky. We had a bulldozer making roads for us so we could get our trucks in to repair damage.

“At the local co-op office, everyone has a different responsibility,” Burden says. “One person is in charge of meals, another in charge of lodging and clothing—one lady spent hours every afternoon doing laundry for the many out-of-state work crews—it’s all very well thought-out.”

When FEMA commandeered several local hotels for their staff, Mississippi co-ops arranged for visiting workers to sleep and shower at Roosevelt State Park. Other crews stayed at hunting camps. Burden recalls that breakfast and supper were often served at local churches, with lunch being brought to the workers at their job sites. Burden says, “The folks in Mississippi showed us Southern hospitality at its finest.”

Kentucky’s White, who traveled throughout Mississippi as a roaming safety officer and general go-getter, says, “Our crews worked such long hours that we all joked that we never saw the places we stayed during daylight hours.”

White says, “The overriding concern in any restoration project is the safety of the public and the workers. These are difficult working conditions—and removing any live hazards must be done as quickly as possible to protect the public and all workers. Other than mosquito bites and the usual bumps and scrapes working outdoors, no Kentucky co-op workers were injured while restoring electric service.”

As work progressed, linemen rotated back to their home states to be replaced with fresh crews. Kentucky’s two “waves” of workers totaled more than 200. After Hurricane Rita, some Kentucky crews were then sent to Louisiana to repair damage there.

White says, “The guys who stay at home deserve a pat on the back, too. They have to pick up the slack and work extra hard to cover the work that needs to be done at home while the others are rendering mutual aid in faraway states. It is a sacrifice for the whole co-op that sends people to help after a disaster—but we are glad to help each other.”

To find out more about restoring power after the hurricanes, visit the Web site of the Mississippi electric co-ops at www.epaofms.com.

Next month: The Governor’s Energy Plan

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