The Electrical Worker online
December 2018

After the Storm:
IBEW on the Front Lines of Recovery
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The most powerful hurricane to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle in at least 150 years smashed houses, sent a storm surge dozens of miles inland, tore up thousands of trees and cut power to an estimated 2.6 million customers. At least 39 people were killed, but weeks after Hurricane Michael's Oct. 10 landfall, dozens of people were still missing, and the ultimate toll may never be known.

From all across the state and country, tens of thousands of IBEW lineworkers staged safely outside the heart of the storm, waiting to enter what Florida Power and Light System Council 4 Business Manager Gary Aleknavich called "the devastation."

The Edison Electric Institute said that more than 35,000 lineworkers and tree-trimmers from more than 25 states were sent to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas. Many were there for weeks, living in "tent" cities, trailers and, for some, the cabs of their bucket trucks.

"Hurricane Michael — like Florence earlier this year and wildfires in California — asked a lot of the men and women of the IBEW, but I'm happy to report we rose to the challenge, as we always have before," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "I couldn't be more proud of the lineworkers and tree-trimmers who rode into the storm to do their jobs, and I know members from all of our branches will be heavily involved in the recovery effort going forward."

Hurricane Michael made landfall as a near-Category 5 storm with sustained 155-mph winds, stronger than Hurricanes Katrina or Andrew, and far stronger than Florence, which caused more than $45 billion in damage earlier this year. Only the so-called Labor Day hurricane of 1935 and Camille in 1969, when they came ashore, registered a lower barometric pressure, the most accurate way to determine the total power of a storm.

Hurricanes get their power from warm water and tend to weaken when they hit land, but the National Weather Service said this was not the case with Michael and issued an extraordinary extreme wind warning including an all-caps message calling the situation "extremely dangerous and life-threatening."

As meteorologist Matthew Cappucci put it, "Imagine a tornado parking over you for three hours. This is it." The miles-wide scar of browning and dying trees and plants torn up by the storm was visible in photographs taken from the International Space Station.

The storm arrived at the highest tides of the year, the King Tides, when the moon is full or new and the earth is closest to the sun. It was, said NWS Director Louis Uccellini, the "worst-case scenario."

As the sun rose the next morning, the toll was clear. The Department of Energy reported nearly 400,000 power outages in Florida, 336,000 in Georgia and more than 60,000 in Alabama. As the storm headed north, it weakened before colliding with a cold front from the northeast, unleashing a torrent of rain that knocked out power for about 500,000 households in both North Carolina and Virginia and more than 100,000 in South Carolina.

Gulf Power's territory bore the brunt of the storm, and company spokespeople said, in some areas, recovery will require rebuilding the system, not merely repairing it.

"Much of what we are doing is rebuilding from the ground up," said Gulf Power CEO Stan Connally. "Certainly, we have seen hurricanes but, what I'm hearing from people coming from all over the U.S., is that this is the worst they have ever seen."

But within a week, the army of lineworkers and support crews deployed across the South had restored power to nearly 95 percent of the affected customers. The majority of the remaining outages were confined to the worst hit corners of the Florida Panhandle, where large sections of the high-voltage transmission system were wiped away in addition to the localized distribution network. Gulf Power's workers alone have raised more than 6,500 poles.

"Every one of my members suffered damage to home, car or property. Our schools are closed and most of those are heavily damaged. Some folks lost everything," said Pensacola Local 1055 Business Manager Rob Pribbenow. "A lot of my members have been on many storm trips. It's really different being on this side."

Duke Energy Florida's territory lies just east of where the storm came ashore. Before landfall, the company warned that up to 200,000 customers were at risk of losing power. But after the wind and rain subsided, the company reported only 30,000 customers without power. Lineworkers from Duke Energy's Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky divisions were brought in, and the company made mutual assistance requests to utilities in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Illinois, Texas and Missouri.

"It was a lot of whacking. Lots of down trees, lots of down poles," said Fort Lauderdale Local 759 member Abel Hernandez. "But we know how to work safely in these scenarios, and it's an honor to help people. When they see the trucks rolling in, it's a feeling of joy: help is on the way."

For Jim Hamilton, Florida Power and Light safety coordinator for power delivery, the surprising thing wasn't the damage to the distribution network, it was the downed transmission towers.

"I've been through a lot of hurricanes, but you can tell the very destructive ones instantly by the way the trees just broke. But when you see transmission towers down, it isn't the trees that did it. It's just the wind," he said.

The massive response was one of the largest in history, but still smaller than Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which knocked out power for over 10 million customers in 24 states in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. More than 50,000 workers from almost every state and Canada were called in to repair the damage then.

When it was originally intended, the Regional Mutual Assistance Groups system was designed primarily as a response to regional events. But in recent years, as storms have grown in frequency and intensity, the investor-owned utility association, Edison Electric Institute, developed the National Response Event program to scale the regional response.

While the goal of power restoration is to get the power back on as quickly as possible, the first step utilities take when a natural disaster hits is often the opposite. Typically, companies' first step is to make sure lines are de-energized, to prevent electrocution of people in standing water and to prevent home or wild fires. Only after public safety is assured, crews begin their work based on pre-established priorities.

First come power plants and transmission lines. Then crews restore substations and service to emergency responders, including hospitals and water treatment plants. Only then do significant resources turn to restoring the bulk of the distribution systems, focusing first on population centers and moving, finally, to isolated single-family homes.

It's a job easier said than done in a disaster this widespread, said Utility Department Director Donnie Colston.

"We have the men and women to clear the trees, set new poles and hang new lines, but it isn't always up to us," he said. "Whole circuits are down and thousands of poles. And the infrastructure has to be replaced. I've seen videos with half a mile of road just washed away. Bucket trucks need roads. This is slow, dangerous work. It will take time, but IBEW members will lead the way."


Hurricane Michael brought more than 35,000 mutual assistance lineworkers to the Southeast, including this crew from Mississippi Power, which was repairing damage in Panama City, Fla.

Photo courtesy: Gulf Power




Tree-trimming crews are central to the recovery effort, but it wasn't trees that took down this 115kv transmission tower. Sustained winds in excess of 150 mph snapped trees and bent metal across nearly half a dozen states.

Photos courtesy: Gulf Power