by Paul Hull, contributing Writer
Whoever you are, you have a personal interest in the success of restoration efforts after any storm or natural disaster. You might be the utility worker who repositions poles and wires, the resident who finds that utilities are essential to daily life, the community leader whose telephone doesn’t stop ringing because isn’t that why we elected you? Perhaps you are the manager whose responsibility is to restore power or communications. Whoever you are, restoration must be quick and efficient and perceived that way, too.
Storms vary by state. They can be ice like in Kentucky or warm weather hurricanes like those along the southern states. They may be almost isolated, seeming to affect only one community, like some tornadoes and thunderstorms, or they may cover hundreds of square miles. Entergy Corp. received two national awards this year for restoring power after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and helping two utilities recover from severe weather.
“It’s a tremendous honor to receive awards 11 years in a row,” said Randy Helmick, Entergy storm boss and vice president of transmission. “I think it shows our employees are known throughout the industry for their outstanding preparation and dedication to getting the job done safely and quickly. Their focus on safety allowed us to rebuild significant sections of our system within 24 days after Gustav and Ike and work a total of 8.7 million man-hours while setting the best safety record in our company’s history.”
Helmick mentioned preparation and dedication. No utility is going to restore its system unless it already has an excellent plan for such events. Almost all utilities have such plans, and that is one reason most customers are impressed by restoration efforts nationwide. It’s not good luck; it’s good preparation.
Florida experiences some of the nation’s most extraordinary weather. Daily weather-related challenges including thunderstorms, lightning strikes and hurricanes necessitate more precise weather information than the general public receives. Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) invested in a more advanced and comprehensive real-time weather provider, said Irene White, FPL’s director of employee and customer support.
“FPL is investing in smart technology that enhances its ability to manage the electrical system more efficiently and to predict and act on potential reliability issues before they occur,” White said. “FPL’s advanced radar tools allow its employees to anticipate where and when a storm may impact its system. The tool provides wind direction, speed, temperature and humidity information. The latter, down here, is everything.”
During the 2005 and 2006 hurricane seasons with seven storms in 15 months, FPL responded to the state’s call to maintain a high level of preparation.
“We embarked on a series of comprehensive investments and expenditures to strengthen our electrical infrastructure to better withstand the impact of severe weather,” White said. “We recognize that no utility can be 100 percent stormproof. Our work is also designed to further reduce customer outages through aggressive preventative maintenance projects on our overhead and underground lines and equipment.”
The utility’s investments are designed to respond to the potential for more frequent, more powerful hurricanes and to deliver customer benefits because they enhance the day-to-day reliability, as well.
The Customer’s Viewpoint
In Nacogdoches County, Texas, nobody could remember a hurricane reaching that deep into the state. The winds were strong. The National Weather Service station in Shreveport, La., left a message for Bob Hurst, Department of Homeland Security director for the county minus the city of Nacogdoches itself (which had its own stand-alone plan and EMC). The message said, “Mr. Hurst, let me first tell you that we’re working off Doppler radar indications. All our remote instruments have ceased functioning or reporting throughout east Texas.”
Everybody hoped the hurricane would miss. It didn’t.
The county emergency operations center (EOC) was established at the Nacogdoches County Sheriff’s Department. Before the hurricane’s landfall, Hurst had established links with all agencies and critical infrastructure vendors and utilities. Restoration was more difficult because four electricity providers service some part of the county. As the winds subsided, Hurst and his colleagues quickly assessed that the county was 95 percent dark and powerless. For more than two hours, all 1,200-plus miles of roadway in the county were blocked at some point by fallen trees or other debris. All power companies were affected.
“The call that chilled me was the one to the provider that covered almost half our county,” Hurst said. “Their CEO said they had a huge problem. At best they could estimate that 90 percent of transmission lines were damaged and needing repair. He reminded me they had to get the transmission lines up and running before they even thought of getting to substations and on out to residences. That made me believe that we could have as much as months of no power to certain areas of our county.”
The major producers in Nacogdoches County at the time were lumber, poultry and cattle, followed by the local state university and light industry. The poultry companies quickly had on-site backup power. That was the only good news.
Stores began to report melting goods and no food apart from what was on shelves. The same stores could not pump gas to people trying to work on disaster relief. No electricity. No pump. No fuel out of the ground.
For a community, then, a loss of power affects more than television, cooking and drying one’s hair. In this county, there were a few backup generators for the 14 water utility districts and, when the water line pressure dropped below 10 psi for more than an hour, state regulations required that water be boiled until the pumps were back in normal service. Boil? Using what? While there were a few overhead tanks of water, a big concern was the possible requirement for water for residential or commercial fires. People escaping Hurricane Rita from Beaumont, Orange, Houston, Galveston and other communities to Nacogdoches County started to fill evacuee centers.
The response by the power industry in Nacogdoches County was excellent considering what they had to work with. One obstacle was a law that prohibited power companies to cross connect because of public concerns about price collusion during normal business times. The governor reportedly overrode the law for the emergency, but anybody responsible in utilities and communities should check that aspect of restoration in their communities. What are your local laws?
The city of Nacogdoches had power restored within 12 days. Some parts of the county were without power for up to 20 days.
“As I saw it, the biggest challenge was that no one can truly prepare 100 percent for the scope of devastation that our power companies found after the storm had passed,” Hurst said.
Cooperation is Everybody’s Business
It would be easy to imagine that restoring power and services after a natural disaster is the responsibility only of the utilities. Power and telecommunication companies play necessary roles in restoration, but they cannot achieve restoration without entire community cooperation. There have been stories of restoration efforts slowed and impeded by the selfish preferences of local politicians and elected officials. Such incidents must be avoided. A utility serves all customers and must determine from its own capabilities and equipment available the order in which restoration happens. Communities, through their appropriate leaders and departments, should prepare for what might happen, even if they hope it never will.
One of the most surprising incidents in storm history occurred in Kentucky at the end of January. When the ice storm struck the city of Mayfield, there was no protection for the people in the 20-degree weather. They had no power and no access to clean water.
During catastrophes, time seems short. When an event happens, there is no time to organize a committee to organize a task force to call in experts at a date convenient to them next week or month. Time in a disaster is now.
Mayfield Mayor Arthur Byrn turned to the member-owned insurance pool Kentucky League of Cities Insurance Services (KLCIS) and its disaster recovery partner, Agility Recovery Systems. Agility Recovery delivered generators to Mayfield within hours, and the city was able to provide warm shelters and clean water.
“Agility Recovery was, literally, a lifesaver,” Byrn said. “People had a warm place to sleep and clean water to drink. Our ability to recover made all the difference in the world.”
In western Kentucky, 21 cities and municipalities had emergency generators on-site following the January ice storm, thanks to the statewide initiative that benefits 400 municipalities. The state had prepared for an ice storm and was thankful for the foresight and preparation. In late 2008, KLCIS and Agility Recovery finalized the disaster-planning initiative that ensures each city has an actionable, accountable disaster recovery program. It is believed to be the first program nationwide between a municipal league representing cities and a disaster recovery provider.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said other cities should plan accordingly.
“Municipalities throughout the country should look at these Kentucky cities and commend them for their proactive disaster planning,” Beshear said. “The ability of these cities to restore critical services within hours of the January ice storm saved lives and enabled state and national resources to attend to areas with critical needs.”
Kentucky cities use Agility Recovery for continuity planning and, if needed, disaster recovery. Agility Recovery works continually with the cities to plan for interruptions caused by natural and man-made disasters. Included in those planning initiatives are critical areas (often neglected in reports of storm restoration in former years nationwide) such as emergency communication plans, alternative administrative and office space, technology replacement and employee continuity.
The Kentucky League of Cities was drawn to the program’s flexibility, said Sylvia Lovely, KLC executive director and CEO.
“In the case of January’s ice storm, our cities really needed generators, and they got them,” Lovely said. “But in the event of a tornado, fire or even a server failure, our cities will need other tools. They now have complete access to the resources they need because of this disaster recovery program.”
There is a recent report about the work of a senior at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. For a practical, scientific project, Apoorv Gehlot (raised in Jodhpur, Rajasthan) has built a GIS emergency management system for the city of Cupertino, Calif. Should disaster strike the city, the emergency operations manager will be able to see at a glance which buildings are safe, who needs medical attention, where supplies are stockpiled and which roads are passable. As the situation changes, the manager will be able to update the map within seconds to direct emergency assistance.
Using a GIS program that works with online mapping, Gehlot created a dynamic system that allows for numerous contingencies, even overlaying a contour map on the city street system. If there were a flood, then higher ground would be important. Gas leaks, impassable roads, severely injured citizens, supply caches and safe havens all have symbols on the map. The program relies on a satellite, so it works even when electricity and phone systems are down, said Teri Gerhardt, the city’s GIS coordinator.
“The application proved to be extremely functional,” Gerhardt said.
In a planned emergency exercise, the EOC displayed the map on the main projector screen, giving the entire room a bird’s-eye view as it was happening in the city.
Other Players Always Ready to Go on Stage
In September 2008, Hurricane Gustav hit land near Baton Rouge, La. The storm brought heavy rain and wind in excess of 115 mph. One of the first responders when the power went out was Stuart C. Irby Co. Having a disaster recovery plan, Irby’s Baton Rouge facility had a supply kit with a generator in case the branch lost power, said Don Corley, Irby vice president of purchasing and inventory.
“We have had a disaster recovery plan for years,” Corley said. “After Hurricane Katrina, it was updated and enhanced to cover all of our critical business functions during an emergency event.”
As damage and power outages from Hurricane Gustav spread across the territory, Irby workers started supplying customers with all the material they needed to restore power to stricken communities.
Irby worked around the clock, said Ron May, vice president of engineering and operations for Dixie Membership Corp.
“They were ordering, receiving and delivering material to all of our warehouses and staging areas after the hurricane,” May said.
Two weeks later, Hurricane Ike arrived. Several large Houston utilities needed help restoring power to customers, Corley said.
“Irby had over 100 people involved in the recovery effort over a three-week period,” he said.
It’s not only utilities and communities; efficient distributors also can make restoration successful. With more than 800 employees nationwide, Irby deployed more than 20 percent of its work force to help post-hurricane recovery in Houston and Baton Rouge.
Knowing where everything is working or situated is an advantage for those attempting restoration after storms and disasters. A recent announcement shows how utilities can track, manage and deploy their assets in different places during power outages and other recovery efforts. The SkyBitz Disaster Recovery Solution lets utilities leverage real-time information about the location, status and environmental conditions of their assets to enable a fast, secure, effective response program. That would include sending teams to remote locations during network outages.
The solution is based on the company’s Smart Sensor Tracking management solution. For six years, it has helped provide disaster recovery solutions to emergency field services, the transportation industry and chemical, oil and gas industries. With a battery life up to five years, the system is easily set up, Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance-certified and used for SCADA and telemetry-type applications.
Cooperation exists after storms. Crews come from across the nation to help troubled areas. In Kentucky’s storm earlier this year, for example, 12 electric membership corporations (EMCs) from Georgia and Georgia Transmission Corp. sent nearly 100 workers to help sister cooperatives repair extensive damage.
The number of helpers from Georgia EMCs reached nearly 250, some of them working in Kentucky for almost three weeks. In addition, electric co-op employees from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Tennessee helped.