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Hurricane Report

Posted 10/1/2017

By R. Bruce Wright, CPCU

Disasters Bring out the true meaning of “cooperative.”

The one-two punch of devastation delivered by hurricanes Harvey and Irma brought destruction, deaths, and wide-spread heartbreak to the opposite ends of the Gulf Coast and adjacent states, demonstrating the awful power of nature. But these events also showed the strength of cooperation and mutual aid, as the response to the damage left behind was immediate and extensive. The response to these disasters serves as a vivid demonstration of how by working together, people can do so much more than they can alone. Here are some quotations to consider, taken from recent co-op publications: 

  • “A key aspect of electric cooperatives is a willingness to always be on the ready to assist other cooperatives and utilities in times of need.” — Duane Highley, president/CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas
  • “It is incumbent upon us to work together and help one another in times of disaster to make sure our power delivery systems are repaired as quickly, safely and cost-effectively as possible.” — Gayvin Strantz, vice president of job training and safety for Indiana Electric Cooperatives.
  • “Co-ops are like a big family, whoever needs help, we just go.” — Shane Wallace, journeyman lineworker for Craighead EC, Arkansas, before leaving early on Sept. 10, for the long trip to assist South Carolina’s Pee Dee EC.
  • “Cooperation among cooperatives is one of our guiding principles for a good reason: it helps to make everyone’s jobs easier and make their lives better. Cooperation, to us, is not just words on paper. It’s what we do. And it’s comforting to know that help will be there when we need it, too.” —Dwight Miller, director of safety and loss control at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives.

Each of these statements highlights the fact that people working together can accomplish more, and more quickly, than they can on their own. Cooperation is the key. While in the normal course of events, electric utilities do all they can to prevent outages, sometimes nothing can defeat the awesome power of nature. But when disasters do happen, co-ops are prepared to respond. And, because nearly all electric cooperatives build their distribution systems to RUS standards, line crews from virtually any co-op in America can arrive on a disaster scene ready to provide emergency support, secure in their knowledge of the system’s engineering.

Harvey leaves the Western Gulf and strikes Texas

On the night of Friday, August 25, Hurricane Harvey smashed directly into electric cooperatives along the Texas Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane. The widespread rain wreaked havoc both for those on the coast and for co-ops farther inland. San Patricio Electric Cooperative took the immediate brunt of the storm and sustained a near-total system outage, affecting 11,000 meters. Nearby Victoria Electric Cooperative and virtually its entire system of more than 22,000 meters were disabled. Nueces EC, west and south of Corpus Christi, reported nearly 8,000 meters out after the storm’s immediate impact. Nueces Electric Cooperative was at the far southern end of the devastation. “We were 100 percent back up by Sunday evening,” said Avan Irani, NEC’s chief operating officer. “So immediately after that, we were in touch with the two co-ops closest to us that were affected the most, San Patricio and Victoria Electric.” Jackson EC, based in Edna, lost power to all its 15,258 meters at the peak, and Guadalupe Valley EC had approximately 18,000 of its members affected by the storm. Victoria EC, San Patricio EC and Jackson EC’s restoration efforts were hindered by rising floodwaters from rivers and tributaries, limiting travel and adding uncertainty to the logistics of power restoration. Jasper-Newton Electric Cooperative, near the Louisiana border, had to deal with massive flooding. A transmission outage took all of their 22,000 meters and some of Sam Houston Electric Cooperative’s meters offline Thursday evening. Other co-ops in Texas sustained significant damage from high winds and flooding, which hindered the work of local line workers and the support crews that poured in from more than one-third of the state’s electric cooperatives—from as far away as the Texas Panhandle, North Texas and West Texas.

While the worst devastation seems to have occurred outside co-op service areas, fourteen Texas co-ops were dealing with storm-related damage. At the peak of outages, nearly 150,000 co-op members were without power. Storm-damaged co-ops welcomed the support of other co-op crews from all corners of the state to help restore power. More than a third of the Texas Cooperatives have contributed crews and other resources toward the restoration efforts, demonstrating the true spirit of cooperation.

Irma hits Key West, the Eastern entry to the Gulf.

When Irma hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on the night of Sept. 10, it immediately took out nearly 22,000 of the meters served by Florida Keys EC. Further damage followed as the storm moved to the north, with Lee County Electric Cooperative losing service to 170,000 meters in the hard-hit Fort Myers area. Irma then blew through Sumterville-based SECO Energy’s service area, with hurricane-force winds from Sunday afternoon through Monday morning. More than half of the SECO’s nearly 200,000 meters were knocked out before the winds subsided, and 33,000+ were still out as of September 14th. Other Florida Co-ops suffered outages as the storm spread slowly northward, dumping rain steadily.

Further north, co-ops in Georgia faced Irma’s high winds and torrents of rain, even as the storm lost some of its initial punch. Several Georgia cooperatives experienced a surge of outages due to tropical-storm force winds ranging from 40 mph to 60 mph that felled trees and blew debris on power lines. More than 48,300 meters served by electric cooperatives in South Carolina were reported out by early afternoon on Sept. 11. Peak outage estimates indicate more than 760,000 co-op outages in Florida, 535,000 in Georgia and 100,000 in South Carolina. Officials warn that in some spots, full restoration could take weeks.

To restore the services in the southeast, some 5,000 cooperative workers from 25 states across the nation converged on the area to assist in restoration efforts, with crews from as far away as Minnesota. As an example, some twenty-one Illinois cooperatives have crews working in the Southeast.

NRECA is working with the Department of Energy and other federal agencies to ensure that co-ops have access to the resources they need as they work to restore power. As is typically the case during large-scale storm damage of this magnitude, the last miles are the most difficult to restore. The co-ops deal first with rebuilding their main supply lines, to restore power to the most members as quickly as possible, and then work on the single-phase lines. The linemen are working an average of 17 hours a day, under difficult circumstances, to rebuild the systems.

Our thoughts go out to everyone affected by these recent storms and their aftermath. Cooperation will make things go more smoothly as restoration efforts continue.