More than 600,000 people lost power when Hurricane Irene slammed into the East Coast at the end of August. Flooding in North Carolina, New York and Vermont has added to the massive power restoration project now underway. Once the initial damage assessments and debris removal are complete, restoring power to essential infrastructure, public buildings, businesses and homes will be the next order of business for many.

“Post-disaster is an incredibly dangerous time, often just as dangerous as the actual disaster itself,” said Mike Johnston, executive director, Standards and Safety for the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). Johnston, a former electrician and electrical safety inspector, cautioned against taking unnecessary risks following a disaster.

“Hazards, both structural and electrical, that didn’t exist before are everywhere, and it takes time to identify them,” Johnston said. “We recognize the sense of urgency that people feel when they begin cleaning. But we also know through brutal experience that incorrectly performed electrical work, coupled with a lack of quality safety inspection, could mean a family suffers the tragedy again—this time, in an electrical fire.”

On the larger scale, all utility companies develop emergency preparedness plans based on the particular disasters that could affect their service. Many plans are for weather-related disasters, but utilities also develop plans for system failures and possible security threats. Electrical contractors—“outside line contractors” who specialize in high voltage power transmission and distribution—work with utilities to develop response plans for these disaster scenarios.

“Emergency power response and restoration is as much about getting life back to normal as it is about getting the lights back on,” said Don Wilson, president of Wilson Construction, a high voltage electrical contractor with offices in Oregon and Colorado. Wilson’s company is one of many NECA line contractors who have contracts with utility companies to provide emergency power restoration work following disasters.

Line contractors have a critical role in supporting utilities.

“Many utility companies now utilize contractors to supplement their own internal workforce and engage contractors on both short-term and long term contracts for several reasons, not just disaster response,” Wilson said. “Contractors are brought on board to meet short-term increases in service requirements. Many small public utility companies will use outside line contractor services for projects that they may not have expertise or specialty equipment to efficiently construct the project on their own.”

Wilson pointed out that this means a contractor’s crews are usually working on projects for another utility when the call comes in for emergency response. Utilities have agreements in place with neighboring utilities to facilitate this rapid transfer of personnel and resources.

“If a storm is coming—something where we have advance notice—a utility will call us to find out about our crews and how long it will take for them to get to the site,” said John Colson, CEO and Chairman of the Board of Quanta Services, a national electrical contractor with headquarters in Houston. ”Closer to the storm, we notify our employees, and generally, we’re responding about 24 hours before storm actually hits.”

According to MYR Group, Inc., a holding company of specialty construction service providers, disaster responses range from one or two crews consisting of 3-4 people, up to 50 crews of 3-4 people. Typically, crews can be mobilized within 24 hours or less. Crews may spend a brief time in a staging area out of the storm’s reach, then move in to affected areas as soon the storm is over.

Disaster response comes with challenges and dangers line workers don't face every day. They are thoroughly trained in issues regarding energized and downed lines, but they tend to proceed with even more caution during a disaster since private generators may be online improperly. Many disasters also bring out vermin and raw sewage that make a tough job truly dangerous.

"Safety is priority one," Colson said. "We always send a safety specialist with our crews, so they get constant briefings while in the field." Workers also get vaccinations for health hazards they might face in a disaster.

Along with disaster preparedness plans, utilities follow a set of criteria and priorities when restoring power.

"First, we're going to restore power to the critical services needed to support the full power restoration effort," Colson said. This includes hospitals, law enforcement communications, fuel and service centers, and safe places for the workers to rest and eat. Restoring power to this critical infrastructure is often what makes other rescue and relief efforts possible.

It is the community's support, along with utilities' partnerships with private contractors, that makes power restoration run smoothly.

"These situations are extremely challenging," Wilson said. "Contractor crews from outside the trouble area are unfamiliar with the locality, weather conditions are poor, construction standards differ, and it’s dark.

Johnston adds precautions that homeowners and building managers can take to facilitate power restoration efforts and keep their own property safe. All recommendations conform with the specifications of the National Electrical Code. Please note, these guidelines are non-inclusive; the additional resources listed at the end of the article include links to more detailed instructions:

1. All electrical wiring, appliances and motors damaged by floodwater should be checked by an electrician or electrical contractor before any attempt is made to start them. Motors damaged by moisture and dirt can be burned out by careless starting, and damaged or damp wiring will cause failures in circuits and systems.

2. No one should attempt to work on wiring, especially when it is wet, without turning off the main switch for the building. Stand on a dry board even though the switch is in the open position when working on the service entrance equipment. This protects the property from additional hazard while waiting for an electrical contractor.

3. Where immediate use of electric power is essential, dry temporary lines may be run for some equipment, such as pumps. Consult a qualified electrical contractor or inspector before connecting temporary equipment.

4. Wiring that has become wet or damaged during a disaster cannot be safely reused, even it appears to have completely dried or reusable. It must be replaced. Identify any wiring that was under water or dampened. If the water did not reach all levels of a building, wiring that was not wet may still be safely used.

5. Any electrical equipment, such as switches, receptacles (convenience outlets), light outlets and junction boxes, that has been under water must be replaced. They cannot be safely reused.

6. If a junction box is filled with mud, remove the screws holding the receptacle or switch in the box. Pull the receptacle, switch and wires in the junction boxes out about two inches from the box. Clean out the mud and dirt. Do not remove the electrical connections. Leave the boxes open until a qualified electrical contractor, electrician and/or inspector can examine it.

7. Remove fuses and the cover from the entrance panel. Clean out any mud. Wires can be moved, but do not disconnect them.

8. Large electrical appliances that have been under water should be examined by an electrician or an electric serviceperson. Amateur attempts at cleaning and drying appliances can frequently do more harm than good.

When in doubt about the safety of an electrical system, building owners and facility managers are strongly advised to contact their local building safety department to inspect water-damaged electrical equipment and wiring. Johnston also advised owners to contact their local NECA chapter to find a contractor familiar with the hazards of post-flood electrical construction and repair, or to go to www.NECAconnection.com, NECA’s online search engine for electrical contractors.

“Most electrical contractors are small business owners, and we’re already hearing stories of NECA members in flood-affected areas who are scrambling to borrow equipment from out-of-state colleagues so they can get to work in their own communities,” Johnston said. “Electricity is what connects us, and when that connection is severed, it affects everything in our lives.”

To speak with a NECA expert about electrical safety during a disaster or emergency power restoration, contact Beth Margulies, NECA Director, Communications, at 301-215-4526 or 240-461-4769 (mobile) or email beth.margulies@necanet.org.

Additional Resources
Evaluating Water-Damaged Electrical Equipment 2006 (published by the National Electrical Manufacturers Assn.)

Electrical Safety in Your Flood-Damaged Home (from the International Assn. of Electrical Inspectors)

U.S. Small Business Administration Disaster Assistance