Florence recovery: Co-op power restoration means all hands on deck

For electric co-ops in the path of Hurricane Florence, the process of restoring power to hundreds of thousands of consumer-members was the ultimate team effort.

While the flashing lights of bucket trucks and digger-derricks along wet roads are hard to miss, every lineworker and tree trimmer working in the mud and muck to remove debris and rebuild power lines is backed up by co-workers at service centers, pole yards and other facilities commandeered to support emergency restoration work.

To show its support and solidarity with the cooperatives affected by the hurricane, Great River Energy is donating $25,000 to relief funds in both North Carolina and South Carolina.

Trimming and clearing downed trees is a big part of restoration efforts.

Trimming and clearing downed trees is a big part of restoration efforts.

“Electric cooperatives are one family,” said Great River Energy President and CEO David Saggau. “When any membership – anywhere – is in crisis, we all have a responsibility to help. Our members have certainly benefited from the kindness and generosity of our fellow cooperatives following tornadoes and winter storms, and we will help our fellow cooperatives in need.”

Everybody’s on duty

“Crews in the field work 16 hours a day, but then they get rest breaks and stand down overnight,” said Gay Johnson, director of corporate communications at Four County Electric Membership Corp. in Burgaw, North Carolina. “Flooded conditions across our service territory and the amount of debris that still has to be removed limits what can be done safely in the dark.”

Support facilities were busy at many co-op locations even before Florence made landfall on Sept. 14, and the heightened activity continued until power was fully restored.

“People who do certain jobs under normal circumstances get assigned to much different roles during emergencies like this because they are essential,” said Lisa Galizia, communications director of Newport, North Carolina-based Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative.

“At times like this, what matters is lodging visiting crews, keeping everyone fed, getting supplies out, and bird-dogging for line crews unfamiliar with your territory,” Galizia said. “What you regularly do Monday through Friday when all is well is always important, but it may not be at all what’s needed most right now.”

Since the restoration effort geared up, the co-op headquarters’ parking lot by 5 a.m. each day has resembled a traffic jam in New York City’s Times Square. But instead of taxicabs, there are line trucks, pole trailers and digger-derricks with a dozen different co-op logos filling all available spaces.

With 300 co-op staff and mutual aid crewmembers spread across the co-op’s four-county service territory, handling lunches and dinners has been a combination of onsite meals when crews come in for resupply and deliveries by any staffers available.

While geographic information systems, global positioning system technology, cellphones and cab-mounted computers are critical during the ongoing restoration work, white boards, Post-it notes, chalk slates, legal pads on clipboards and paper notebooks are also getting a workout.

“It’s a combination of old and new technology,” Galizia said. “Anything that helps us get the job done will help us get service restored to our members as quickly and safely as possible.”

Restore, dry out and repeat

“This has been all hands on deck, with lots of boots on the ground and all available hands on the phones,” said Penelope Hinson, manager of public relations, marketing and energy management for Horry Electric Cooperative in Conway, South Carolina. “There’s not a person in this co-op that hasn’t pitched into help.”

While some stay busy preparing meals and packing field supplies, others are on hotshot duty, delivering lunches, snacks, water and other essential supplies to crews spread across the co-op’s service territory.

Horry has no plans to release mutual aid and contract crews because additional major flooding across its service territory is a near-certainty.

“We expect the water to be as bad as the wind was, so we’re ready to get back into this when and if it’s necessary,” Hinson said.