Power and Data Restored in Mississippi, But Rebuilding Continues

By Steven M. Brown, editor in chief

The power is out at every home and every business. It’s the kind of nightmare electric utility managers, field technicians and customer service personnel wake up from in a cold sweat. There’s no power anywhere.

But this was no nightmare. It was reality. All of Mississippi Power’s 195,000 customers were left in the dark in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year. Homes were destroyed. Electrical infrastructure was wiped off the map up to a mile inland from the Gulf of Mexico. In all, more than 65 percent of Mississippi Power’s T&D facilities had to be replaced or repaired after the storm. The utility has filed with the state’s public service commission for $277 million in damages, a figure that may rise still as Mississippi Power continues down the long path to making its system whole again.

Workers from Osmose Utility Services put in 2,360 hours of work to rebuild Mississippi Power’s data model after Hurricane Katrina.
Click here to enlarge image

Mississippi Power’s recovery effort immediately after Katrina was beyond admirable. Initial estimates were that power might not be restored for up to four weeks, but 12,000 outside workers from 23 states and Canada were brought in to try to beat that estimate.

Mission accomplished. Within 12 days, the company had restored power to all customers who were able to receive it-close to 169,000 customers. Upon receiving the Edison Electric Institute’s “Emergency Response Award” for its efforts, Mississippi Power president and CEO Anthony Topazi had this to say about his employees’ work: “They put aside their own personal losses to lead a truly inspired restoration effort.”

Perhaps lost in the flood of reports from the hurricane-ravaged Gulf states is the fact that most of the utility workers involved in restoration work truly did suffer some amount of personal loss. Charlie Sentell, Mississippi Power’s customer operations manager, noted that more than half of the company’s employees sustained either major damage, flooding or complete destruction to their homes as a result of Katrina.

“It was personal,” Sentell said.

Lou Occhi, Mississippi Power’s distribution technical support supervisor, had two feet of water in his home. He was one of the luckier ones.

“Everybody down here who had family in the area, somebody in the family got nailed by the hurricane,” Occhi said. “My mom and dad stayed at our house because we only had two feet of water in it. Their house was gone.”

Restoring More than Poles and Wires

Sentell said that in its efforts to restore power to the customers who remained after Hurricane Katrina-those whose homes and businesses weren’t completely destroyed-Mississippi Power replaced 9,000 distribution poles and thousands of transformers in 12 days. One thousand miles of line and 300 transmission towers were also replaced. The crucial next step, after hammering everything back together, would be to take inventory of exactly what went where. Just as poles, wires, transformers and other equipment had to be replaced, the data model that Mississippi Power uses as a foundation to run its system would need to be restored as well.

Workers from Osmose Utility Services put in 2,360 hours of work to rebuild Mississippi Power’s data model after Hurricane Katrina.
Click here to enlarge image

Why? All of the utility’s maps, data repositories, GIS, construction, outage management and engineering systems were populated with data from the old system-the one that existed before Mississippi Power replaced all those poles, towers and everything that was attached to them. Systems like the utility’s GIS and outage management solution wouldn’t work the way they were designed to until the data model was rebuilt to accurately reflect post-storm conditions.

That’s where Osmose Utilities Services enters the story. Field inventory is what they do, although not often on the scale or in the time frame that Mississippi Power required.

The first man from Osmose on the scene didn’t have far to travel, and, like most of Mississippi Power’s personnel, he too had a personal stake in the rebuilding effort. Joel Rowe, vice president of operations and safety director for Osmose, lived in Mississippi Power’s service territory. Even though the home where Rowe, his wife and four children lived was some 80 miles inland in Laurel, Miss., it didn’t escape the storm’s power. Four large trees fell on his house and collapsed the roof. Rowe has since moved to Atlanta. That move was actually planned before Katrina hit, but the hurricane sped up Rowe’s moving plans significantly. First, though, there was work to be done.

Being the first man on the ground from Osmose, Rowe performed initial reconnaissance and logistical work in preparation for the full field inventory that would take place. Osmose would ultimately collect data on 302,000 points of network interest-a job that would normally take 12 to 18 months, according to Osmose. Mississippi Power needed it done in 12 weeks.

Osmose brought in 57 field technicians, 16 staff members from their Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., offices and 11 field managers from other regions to do the work. There was little in the way of lodging available and only limited communications facilities. A staging area was built, consisting of about 30 mobile trailers for the Osmose crew to work from.

“We approached this as a national project,” Rowe said. “If someone had the skill set and the expertise that we needed, it didn’t matter if their normal job was behind a desk in Syracuse or Buffalo; they went to Mississippi.”

Jeremy Sadler, Osmose technical sales engineer, was one of those who came down to Mississippi from Syracuse, but he was no stranger to the area. Sadler had just moved to Syracuse from New Orleans about six weeks before Katrina hit. He was familiar with the Mississippi Gulf region from family vacations he used to take to Biloxi and Gulfport. Sadler said one of the toughest parts of working on the Mississippi Power data recovery-besides working with limited lodging and communication capabilities-was seeing once-familiar areas completely devastated and transformed by the hurricane’s force.

Sadler spent about seven weeks on-site in Mississippi. He was brought in to design the workflow necessary to collect and verify data and also to design training for the large number of field inventory workers, many of whom had limited field experience.

“We had a lot of people we could use, but we knew there would be a tremendous need for entry level workers,” Sadler said. “We were starting from scratch with some of them.” Sadler estimated that maybe 25 percent of the workers designated as field technicians might have had some experience.

“We trained close to 80 or 90 people in the span of four to six weeks,” he said.

Training and field tests were performed in Meridian, Miss., where some hotel lodging was available. After training was completed, Sadler and his Osmose crew moved down to Poplarville, where most of the crew worked out of an old RV park.

“It was like the old M*A*S*H TV show,” Sadler said of the working conditions. “A lot of stress and hardships, but we built some pretty strong bonds working together like that.”

Once in Poplarville, it was time for crews to go out into the field and take a detailed look at the power delivery facilities Mississippi Power had in place after they had performed their initial restoration work. Osmose took Mississippi Power’s pre-storm GIS into the field to make corrections and do a full system inventory. Limited cellular communications capabilities were beginning to come back on-line at this time, but not to the extent that they would prove reliable enough for field technicians. Fortunately (or “by the grace of God,” as Mississippi Power’s Lou Occhi put it), the utility’s own SouthernLINC radio system was still operational after the storm. Osmose field techs were able to communicate with one another and with the make-shift field office via this radio network.

Once data was collected from the field, it was brought back to the base camp for quality assurance work and accuracy testing. The verified data was then sent to Mississippi Power for customer acceptance. After it was approved by the utility, the data still needed to be sent up to Osmose’s Syracuse office for final “number crunching.” This posed another challenge, as there were no broadband facilities in Poplarville.

Necessity being the mother that she is, Sadler’s group got inventive and set up a satellite system to transmit the large volumes of collected data from their temporary RV park headquarters back to corporate headquarters in Syracuse.

The entire system inventory was completed in less than 100 days, and the data Osmose collected proved to be more than 98 percent accurate, which was above the accuracy level Mississippi Power required. The utility will use this restored facility data for many purposes, including re-populating its ESRI geographic information system and running its SPL WorldGroup trouble call management system, an application that becomes essential as the utility continues to rebuild and prepares to deal with future weather events.

“To continue to coordinate outage restorations, our data has to be up-to-date,” Mississippi Power’s Occhi said. “A chunk of our system was just blown away. Our big push was to have it restored as much as we could, because now we’re coming up on another hurricane season. We needed to get that data up to speed.”

What’s Ahead

While customer power was restored and the data model rebuilt in a near-miraculous time frame, much work lies ahead for Mississippi Power. Areas near the Gulf Coast could be likened to a slate wiped clean. Company spokesman Kurt Brautigam noted that utility workers are still clearing out debris in some areas. The rebuilding work is made more challenging by the uncertainty that lies ahead. Some areas near the coast are still uninhabited. Uncertainty about when and how families and business will move back in makes power planning difficult.

“We’ll have to build the system back based on the needs the develop,” Occhi said. “We can’t just string wire down the road. For one thing, no one can build there right now anyway. And we just don’t know what’s going to go back in there. It might be a house or a 30-story condo. We just don’t know.”

For now, power is back on, and the data model is accurate. Mississippi Power continues with its rebuilding effort, still updating the corrected data model as they go. It’s a testament to the level of activity immediately after Katrina that Mississippi Power refers to its current workload as “more routine.” The workload may have eased some, but the utility still faces many daunting challenges.

“The areas near the coast that were devastated, it’s going to take a long time,” Occhi said.

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