In Hurricane Irma’s wake, the largest power restoration force in U.S. history mobilized to repair and rebuild the Southeast, with line crews coming from as far away as Seattle, California and even parts of Canada to pitch in. With nearly 8 million out of power, approximately 60,000 line workers, tree-trimmers and support staff from 250 utilities converged on Florida, led by IBEW members, who made up an enormous share of the restoration army.
|Hurricane restoration in St. Augustine, Fla.
||Recovery work in South Miami-Dade County.
|One of dozens of staging areas for lineworkers after the storm. This one was in Lake, Fla.
|| Photos Credit: FPL
Crews work to repair Hurricane Irma damage in Naples, Fla., on Sept. 15.
“The men and women of the IBEW stepped up big time after Hurricane Irma, and I can’t thank them enough for doing our Brotherhood proud,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “When the lights go out and people are in need, we show up and get the job done. It’s no different from how our members approach every day on the job – with safety, professionalism and quality that sets us apart.”
The overwhelming IBEW response – primarily by lineworkers who volunteered for the difficult restoration assignment – was noticed by officials, including U.S. secretary of energy, Rick Perry, who called Stephenson from Air Force One on his return from surveying damage with President Donald Trump in Florida.
“I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you,” Perry said. “Please pass on to your membership how much I appreciate all the work they’re doing.”
The actual work of restoration has been slow going thanks to the extraordinary amount of tree damage and debris and the immense scale of Irma’s destruction, which hit Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas.
“This storm touched every bit of our service area,” said U-4 Utility System Council Business Manager Gary Aleknavich, who represents 2,900 Florida Power & Light employees at 11 local unions. “Irma came straight up the peninsula, and this hurricane was wider than our state. There isn’t a Floridian who was unaffected by this storm.”
|A homemade sign hangs from a clothesline.
Photo: Twitter via Dayton Power & Light
|A sign posted outside Lighthouse United Methodist Church in Boca Grande, Fla.
Preparations for Irma began early as forecasts hinted that its strength and path could produce one of the deadliest and most destructive storms in history. After the call for help went out, crews from all over the U.S. and Canada began arriving in Florida days before the hurricane’s Sept. 10 landfall, assigned to pre-staging areas and housed in Category 5-rated hotels.
Among those was Colby Merriman, a line clearance technician from Joplin, Mo., Local 95. Merriman, who works for Shade Tree Service Co., was among a group of 10 IBEW members who brought five trucks from Joplin; he says the company brought many more technicians from other locations and IBEW locals as far away as Wisconsin.
Merriman and his crew staged at Disney World in Orlando on the Friday before the storm, but as soon as the winds decreased, they headed for Hollywood in the heavily populated strip between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. Like everyone else dispatched into the path of the storm, the Shade Tree crew was working 16-hour days, seven days-a-week, to restore power. Much of it was in backyards, which Merriman says made the work slow going. But he wouldn’t be anywhere else. “This is our job,” said the 34-year-old, who has worked on Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav, Sandy and Matthew over the years. “It’s our pleasure to be down here helping people, no matter how hard the work is.”
Jerry Camacho, a business representative from Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245, flew into Florida the Friday before the storm with a crew of 125 from Pacific Gas & Electric. The lineworkers and staff and rode out Irma in a specially-designed hotel, pressurized to help prevent the windows from breaking. By the next morning, his team was out, helping FPL get substations back up and running and then working main lines from there.
“We’re just happy to be here and to be able to help,” Camacho said. “The people of Florida would do the same for us, and we’ll be here until they don’t need us anymore.”
There’s no telling when that may be, according to Aleknavich, who said FPL still had 220,000 customers without power 10 days after landfall. Adding in outages at other major and municipal utilities, both in Florida and states north, the total number was likely much higher. “Our men and women are out there doing what they do best,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of loose stuff in the trees, so in some cases we’re having to repair things multiple times. We’ll be feeling the effects of Irma for a long time here in Florida.”
“I want our members to know that they’re not just restoring power during natural disasters and emergencies like hurricanes or tornadoes, wildfires or floods. They’re ambassadors for the IBEW – for the whole labor movement – and they’re doing a hell of a job,” Stephenson said. “People take notice, even people who aren’t inclined to support unions.”
Aleknavich thanked the IBEW members from across the country who came to Florida’s aid. “There have been some tragedies in this,” he said, “but to see our brothers and sisters from hundreds and thousands of miles away who’ve come to help is really special. They could be home with their families, but they signed up for this dangerous assignment, and they’ve shown their commitment to safety, skill and professionalism throughout. We’re really grateful, and our 11 locals and 2,900 members won’t forget what they’ve done for us.”
Here’s a (partial) list of utilities and contractors that sent personnel to help restore power:
- Alectra Ontario
- Alliant Energy
- Ameren Missouri
- Atlantic City Electric
- Avista Utilities
- Black Hills Corp.
- CenterPoint Energy
- Con Edison
- Consumers Energy
- Dayton Power & Light
- Delmarva Power
- Dominion Energy
- Duquesne Light
- El Paso Electric
- Emera Maine
- Empire District
- DTE Energy
- Eversource CT
- Eversource NH
- First Energy
- Fortis Inc
- Green Mountain Power
- Hydro One Ontario
- Hydro Ottawa
- IPL Power
- Liberty Utilities
- Madison Gas & Electric
- MidAmerican Energy
- Minnesota Power
- Mississippi Power
- Mon Power
- National Grid
- ORU Connect
- PPL Electric
- Rocky Mountain Power
- Shade Tree Service Co.
- TEP Energy
- Texas-NM Power
- Toledo Edison
- Toronto Hydro
- We Energies
- Westar Energy
- Xcel Energy