A rescue boat motors down Houston’s flooded streets following Hurricane Harvey.  
Creative Commons/ Flickr User Coast Guard News.  

David Hawkes is saddened by the destruction he’s seen in his native Texas. Yet, there’s a sense of honor in knowing that he is being counted on to help get things back to normal.

Johnny Johnson, Beaumont, Texas, Local 2286 member and lineman for Entergy.

“Absolutely,” said Hawkes, a head lineman for CenterPoint Energy and a member of Houston Local 66’s executive board. “I take a great sense of personal pride in all my work. My work here will show that pride in everything I do.”

Hawkes and other IBEW utility-branch members are stretched across the Texas and Louisiana coasts to get electricity restored in areas slammed by Hurricane Harvey. Soon, members from the construction branch will be descending on the area for the massive rebuild that lies ahead.

But the immediate concern is to get power restored – and that’s no easy task even for experienced workers like Hawkes and Johnny Johnson, a lineman for Entergy and recording secretary for Beaumont, Texas, Local 2286. The rain has finally stopped, but its lasting impact is making work difficult.

“Our biggest adversary right now is the water,” said Johnson, who is working in Orange County in southeastern Texas near the Louisiana border. “Even going just 4-5 miles can take you as much as an hour-and-a-half or two hours. Even if where you’re headed is just a half-mile down the road, you might have to drive 10 miles to get there because of all the flood water.”

Once Johnson and others get to an area, they sometimes find neighborhoods still underwater. They can’t get to substations to do their work.

“We can’t even get to places to turn the lights on,” Hawkes said. “We’re not used to that stuff.”

Hawkes lives in Katy, Texas, about 30 miles west of Houston. His home sustained minimal damage, but flooded roads made it impossible to return immediately. Thus, he and other IBEW brothers and sisters lived and worked out of CenterPoint’s service center in Katy. His bed was a cot and a sleeping bag while his family stayed with relatives.

Yet, he considers himself lucky when he sees what has gone on around him. Hawkes speaks from experience. He is part of CenterPoint’s mutual assistance team, which is comprised of first responders who are dispatched to areas that experience an environmental emergency.

No storm has topped the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Unlike many hurricanes, it did not move through quickly, pounding cities like Houston and Galveston and Port Arthur for several days with upwards of 50 inches of rain.

“It reminds me a little bit of Katrina with the flooding,” said Hawkes, referencing the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans. “I think there is less wind damage because it was a tropical storm by the time it got to us. But the sheer water reminds me of Louisiana.”

Johnson lives in Buna, Texas, a small town about 30 miles north of Beaumont. His home has escaped damage, but he’s seen many not nearly as fortunate. Crews’ work sometimes is slowed by people continually coming up and asking when their power will return, he said.

But they often are heartened by people offering fresh water or something to eat.  

“These are our friends and neighbors,” he said. “We understand they want their lights back on, but it makes you feel good when they appreciate you being out there and what you’re doing.”

Utility Department Director Donnie Colston said IBEW members in Texas are working 16-hour shifts and many are sleeping in their trucks. Finding a place to shower can be a challenge. So is keeping in touch with loved ones because many cell towers are damaged.

David Hawkes, Houston Local 66 member and a head lineman for CenterPoint Energy.

“We’re very proud of the apprenticeship training we provide and the training by our utilities that prepares them for this situation,” Colston said. “We’re very proud of the skills they bring and the dedication they bring to our customers in getting their lights turned back on.”

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, an IBEW member, noted that fellow members and other unions are doing what’s expected: Putting their training and superior work skills to use when the country needs them most.

“It’s not just the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana,” she told Texas labor leaders after arriving in Houston on Aug. 31. “It’s a national crisis. All eyes are on you. The labor movement is always the first to respond in these communities.”

Shuler said the national AFL-CIO has donated $100,000 to the Texas AFL-CIO’s Workers Relief Fund and committed to raising $5 million more in cash aid. The AFL-CIO’s Housing Trust Program will invest $50 million during the next five years to areas affected by the hurricane and will work with local officials to see where it is most needed, she said.

“This has destroyed homes, leaving working people with nothing, but it will take our solidarity, or our strength and determination to stand together and get back on our feet,” Shuler said. “We are all in this together. Electricians, nurses, teachers and construction workers are on the front lines risking their lives to save lives. Working people here in Texas are at our best when we look after each other.”

Seventh District International Representative Gary Buresh said that it appears that most local union halls and training centers in the areas affected escaped severe damage. But some members were not as fortunate.

“Our No. 1 goal is to get power restored,” Buresh said. “We’ve got members that have lost their homes and had damage to their homes and the first priority is to get them to a safe place. That’s going to be a challenge because of how many of our members are impacted. We know from Hurricane Ike [in 2008] and Hurricane Rita [in 2005] that housing is a big problem.”

When construction begins, work should be plentiful for IBEW members, Buresh said. Some members of Congress have said the federal debt ceiling shouldn’t be raised for funding to repair damage, leading some labor leaders to wonder if the Davis-Bacon law might be suspended, mandating local prevailing wages on federal public works projects.

Buresh is optimistic that won’t happen. Even though Texas is a conservative state, the congressional delegation and local leaders in and around Houston are supportive of the prevailing wage law. Several federal and municipal facilities, including NASA, were damaged during Hurricane Harvey, and skilled workers will be in demand, he said.

The challenge for the IBEW will be to provide them during a nationwide shortage of skilled construction workers, he said.

“We’ve always been able to in the past,” he said. “I have confidence that we can, but I think it will be a little tougher than it was last time with Ike.”