June 2011

After South's Storms, IBEW to the Rescue
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Alabama was ground zero for April's disastrous twisters, where more than 230 people died. Nearly half a million residents were left without power, making the state's 3,000 IBEW utility members a key component in its recovery.

"We had pretty much every single person we've got at Alabama Power out there working 24/7," says Casey Shelton, business manager of the U-19 coordinating council, which represents nine utility locals at Alabama Power.

They were joined in the recovery effort by 10,000 utility and outside line construction workers from 17 states, including Michigan. Detroit Local 17 Business Manager Kevin Shaffer told WWJ-TV that DTE Energy let employees borrow some of the utility's trucks to help transport IBEW members to Birmingham.

"They've decided to donate their semis," Shaffer says. "As many semis as we need, we will fill as many as we can … and send them down."

The sheer magnitude of the damage made the job daunting. "We're talking 200 transmission towers down," Shelton says. "There were poles and lines that were literally blown away."

There were some towns he says where "there was nothing left to restore power to."

"Cities started to look identical, the damage was so bad," he said.

Alabama Power estimates that more than 5,200 poles and more than 400 transmission system structures were damaged or destroyed, while more than 300 substations lost power.

The massive scope of the disaster meant that in many areas linemen had to literally rebuild the system from scratch.

"This wasn't a repair job, it was reconstruction," Shelton says.

But despite the numerous obstacles, it only took five days to restore electric service to all of the utility's customers who could still receive power.

Shelton credits the fast recovery to the IBEW's professionalism and training and to the union's collaborative partnership with the utility.

"It is a classic example of how employees and management can work together to confront a major crisis," he says. "Alabama Power made sure we had everything we needed — from places to stay to the right equipment — to get the job done."

The utility has been in partnership with the IBEW since 1940, and management has consistently worked with employees to make high-quality training and on-the-job safety a priority.

"We are extremely fortunate to have a positive, collaborative and productive relationship with union leadership," says Alabama Power Chief Executive Charles McCrary.

Despite the risky nature of storm work, Shelton reports that — outside of a few cuts and scrapes — there have been no major injuries.

Mobilizing to Help Victims

While IBEW linemen were busy restoring power, members of Birmingham Local 136 have been volunteering to help tens of thousands of Alabamans who have been left homeless by the twisters.

The local, which includes members from the construction, broadcasting, manufacturing and other branches, set up a massive barbeque — along with dozens of volunteer cooks — at their hall to provide food for needy families around the state. "We've got volunteers who come here by 9 a.m., load up their cars and trucks with food and other items, and go to the communities that could use a helping hand," says Business Agent Jeff Morris.

The local has become the hub for the labor movement's recovery efforts, he says.

"We're collecting diapers, clothes, water, anything — and trying to get it to the people who need them," Morris says. "And we'll keep doing it as long as the donations keep coming in."

Hundreds of volunteers, including union teachers and steelworkers, also mobilized to help people in need.

Terry Davis, the AFL-CIO community services liaison for Central Alabama, told the AFL-CIO blog that "I've been in the labor movement since 1998 and seeing … union brothers and sisters come together to help one another and their communities is the proudest moment of my union life."

Union Plus is offering financial assistance for union members affected by the storms. To find out more about Union Plus Disaster Relief Grants, go to www.unionplus.org/disaster-relief/april-2011-storms.

Thousands of IBEW members from 17 states helped restore power to Alabama.

Photo credit: Phil Free

Despite the massive scope of the damage, the IBEW and Alabama Power were able to restore power to most customers in only five days.

Photo credit: Marvin Gilmore