Entergy, AECC, SWEPCO Send Crews to Hurricane Zone

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Sep. 11, 2017 11:33 am   4 min read

When Hurricane Irma ripped into Florida on Sunday, cutting off electric power to more than 7 million people, Rob Roedel was rallying a rescue party, but he also found himself thinking about an ice storm.

"That was one of the times we needed help, back in 2009," when freezing rain brought down power lines and poles across Arkansas. "Co-op linemen from other states drove hundreds of miles to help get our power back on, and co-ops are known for helping one another," said Roedel, manager of corporate communications for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.

"Now we get to do our part, and it does feel great helping people in a crisis get their lights back on." The effort is part of a mutual-aid program run by Kevin Riddle, AECC's supervisor of safety and loss control, who estimated that beyond the millions without power in Florida, some 100,000 were in the dark in Georgia, with several thousand and counting afflicted in South Carolina.

On Monday, Roedel and Riddle were sending off the last convoy of about 145 linemen from Arkansas' electric cooperatives, bound for Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, where electric cooperatives are dealing with the aftermath of Irma.

As the co-op crews rushed expertise and equipment eastward, they joined about 100 people sent by Entergy Arkansas to help investor-owned utilities in Florida, only days after Entergy crews got back home from restoring electricity in regions of Texas ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. AECC and Entergy were just two divisions in an army of linemen from as far away as Wisconsin and California speeding toward the disaster zone.

SWEPCO sent 233 employees and contractors out to assist Duke Energy Florida, which sent out a call for recovery help. Crews from SWEPCO's five districts, including Fayetteville and Texarkana, departed today. Other crews returned safely Saturday after helping sister company AEP Texas recover from Harvey.

Oklahoma Gas & Electric, which serves thousands of customers in western Arkansas, took advantage of its expertise in disaster restoration by sending a 14-member management team to oversee 250 line workers and 250 tree trimmers employed by Florida Power & Light. OG&E will also be sending 80 of its linemen to Florida on Wednesday.

"Entergy Arkansas and other utilities have mutual assistance agreements that allow the utilities to help one another in times of critical need," Entergy spokeswoman Kerri Jackson Case said on Monday, describing the sorts of arrangements driving SWEPCO, OG&E and AECC as well. "Our crews left yesterday morning."

Both Roedel and Case, as well as representatives of SWEPCO and OG&E, said that power companies make arrangements to cover their own needs while their crews are away, holding enough workers in reserve to handle maintenance and smaller emergencies. "We typically send no more than a third of our workers," Case said.

"We plan for that," said Riddle, who in his time at First Electric Cooperative in Jacksonville helped Louisiana members after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas in August 2005. He was also among the crews that responded to Hurricane Ivan, which hit western Florida and Alabama in 2004. "Generally our crews spend 10 to 14 days in the affected area, and then we rotate them out with new crews if help is needed longer term. For several years the frequency of these hurricanes slacked off, but obviously it's fired up again."

A Florida Power & Light spokesman said that electricity in the hardest-hit areas could be out for weeks, or even months. OG&E is a member of the Midwest Mutual Assistance and Southeast Electrical Exchange, which dispatches teams in cases of widespread power losses. OG&E also sent teams to Texas.

Roedel stressed that all of the co-op linemen heading into the disaster zone are volunteers. Jimmy Sharp, a 35-year veteran with Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative of Texarkana, put it simply: "People need help, and we know how to get the lines up and get the power back on."

Roedel said the first priority for utilities in a disaster zone is to assess damage, coordinate with the local power companies and dispatch crews to safely restore power. "How long that will take depends on Irma, and how angry she was."

Entergy sent some 125 employees to Houston and the surrounding region after Harvey swamped coastal Texas. 

"They got home at the end of last week," Case said. "The trip went well. They were gone about 10 days with no injuries." 

David Mason, an Entergy senior safety specialist and former lineman, helped to restore power in Conroe and New Caney, Texas, before moving on to assist the Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur areas. "We were happy to help people get back to normalcy, but the work was a little different," Mason said. "Instead of wind damage and a lot of poles and lines down, the area was flooded." After spending some days assessing damage and waiting for waters recede, the crews would spend a few days of heavy lifting, and sometimes setting up portable substations. He got back to Arkansas on Sept. 7.

"From my days as a lineman, my wife has been a 'line wife,' knowing that when storms hit, we'll be on the job," Mason told Arkansas Business. "But she and my son did pretty well, and it gave me strength knowing that they were waiting for me back home and knowing we were helping people in need."

Mason's Entergy colleagues even found a crashed motorcyclist face-down in a ditch while driving to their temporary quarters. Trained in first aid and CPR, they cared for the man after an ambulance was called. They even prayed with the cyclist, who appeared to have a broken leg and hip but was conscious and grateful as the ambulance took him away. "It was a blessing to see our guys utilize their training, and from my view save a life. They even joked with him that the ambulance crew would take better care of him, but would charge him more than we would. It was amazing to see him smiling as they put him in the ambulance.

And of course, he said, storm-battered people expressed great thanks to have their lights on again. "Entergy's slogan is 'We Power Life,' and that's what we were doing," Mason said.



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