Higher Ground

Spring 2008 delivered the perfect storm to Iowa. A Memorial Day EF5 tornado leveled most of two towns in the north central part of the state, taking nine lives. Another twister ripped through a Boy Scout camp near the Nebraska border, killing four. Both storms and dozens of others dumped thousands of gallons of rain into waterways already swollen with heavy winter meltoff. More than half of Iowa’s 99 counties were declared disaster areas. However, the water still rose on the Cedar River, which winds through eastern Iowa’s industrial city of Cedar Rapids. Residents there braced for a 500-year flood as the floodstage approached 30 feet, drowning the previous record of 20 feet set in 1929.

On June 13, murky river water flooded more than 10 square miles—4 percent—of the city, including its vibrant downtown and entire neighborhoods. More than 5,000 homes were flooded, but, amazingly, there were no fatalities. Complicating the crisis further, though, was the fact that power distribution and main service entrances in the most affected areas were underground. More than one year later, as the city struggles to rebuild from Iowa’s worst natural disaster, electrical contractors, city officials, busi-ness owners and manufacturers share their valuable experiences and best practices for restoring power after floods.

Seek higher ground

A critical lesson to be learned in any disaster, especially an impending massive flood, is to secure your business first or risk losing everything. Justice Electric Co., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a third-generation firm established in 1961. Its building is located three blocks from the river and 1 foot above the 100-year flood plain. Like many downtown businesses, the company did not carry flood insurance, but the severity of the flood and the importance of seeking higher ground taught the company some of its greatest lessons.

Wednesday, June 11: At crest, experts predicted a 4-foot swell of river water downtown. Justice Electric Co.’s president, Dave Justice, directed crews to move all items from their floors onto shelving higher than 4 feet. By late morning, the decision was made to move items above the 6-foot level. Employees immediately filled two rented semi trailers with as many materials, tools and office equipment as possible. At 10:30 p.m., they parked the fork lift on the highest adjacent street, forwarded the office phone to a cell phone and hoped for the best.

Thursday, June 12: Crews returned to find the fork lift surrounded by water but safe. Water was over 4 feet high in the building and rising. All possible assets had to go to higher ground. The company rented office space and began setting up a temporary shop.

Friday, June 13: The Cedar River crested at 30.1 feet. Justice estimated 8 feet of standing water in his building.

Monday, June 16: Water slowly receded. The temporary doors opened for business with only cell phone communication.

Wednesday, June 18: Initial steps were taken to rebuild property by salvaging flooded tools, stripping walls down to bare block and power washing the remaining structure.

Customer care

As flood waters threatened, utility provider Alliant Energy shut off power to the grid’s entire downtown loop. Mercy Hospital switched to emergency generators and began transferring patients to St. Luke’s Hospital on the northeast side. Going dark were industrial giants such as Quaker Oats, Penford Products, Swiss Valley, Cargill and even Alliant Energy’s headquarters and one of its four service centers.

Torrential rains in 1993 provided the last major flooding experience for Justice Electric and fellow Cedar Rapids-based Acme Electric Co. According to Acme President Don Barrigar, the experience provided valuable insight to the hazards, long hours and complexity of a flood recovery, but it was just a warmup.

“Unlike a routine customer response in terms of sequencing multiple requests, these needs were all immediate to each customer and all started literally the same day. This taxed our resources of qualified personnel, specialty tools and training almost to the breaking point,” Bar-rigar said.

Justice Electric Co. was bombarded with similar pressures and issues.

“When the water was up, I knew I had to get the business running and start trying to take care of existing customers. We had pages of residents calling in needing help. We recommended they try another [electrical] contractor who could get to them sooner,” Justice said.

The residential market received a boost from a group of about 20 retired IBEW 405 electricians, former electrical contractors and Rockwell Collins electrical engineers. Calling themselves “Old Farts Electric,” the group secured funding for tools and materials and is on target to donate more than 10,000 hours to rewire at least 100 flood-damaged homes.

Restoring temporary and permanent power at commercial and industrial customers became Justice Electric Co.’s primary focus. Agri-cultural nutrition producer Cargill has a total of three local soybean-processing plants. Two sustained significant water damage and one lost key motor controls.

“We consolidated all the switch rooms into one new motor control center and automated the process. We also reran new conduit out to approximately 100 motors that had been submerged,” Justice said, who helped secure generators to power the office, and selected loadout operations and dehumidification units.

Even before the power outage, a downtown data center customer, Involta, sought assistance from Justice Electric Co. to prepare for generator power. Situated on the fourth floor of the Granby Building, a mere two blocks from the Cedar River in the 500-year flood plain, Involta’s greatest risk was losing network capability for its critical flood-recovery customers, including two public safety agen-cies.

Although Involta had roof-mounted generators, its transfer switch and electrical gear were located in the wet basement.

“We placed several smaller gas and diesel mobile generators on the higher floors and kept the load small enough to power operations until the water went down and a larger, trailer-mounted generator could feed them temporarily,” Justice said.

The temporary power approach is gaining ground in flood recovery programs due to its ability to cover high- and low-voltage needs.

“Generators are the key,” said Andy Vorwerk, account manager for General Electric Co. “We are seeing them in greater numbers in the industrial, commercial and even the residential markets.”

Employing gas and diesel generators allowed Involta to maintain network capabilities during the entire two-week emergency period with the exception of approximately 20 to 40 seconds, said Jeff Thorsteinson, Involta chief security officer.

“Justice Electric stood in waist deep water and didn’t even think about leaving until it was absolutely clear that there was nothing more to be done. At the same time, their shop was devastated by the flood. Their example and ethic was well beyond any normal duty and very impressive to each and every member of the Involta team,” Thorsteinson said.

Beware of hazards

Taking precautions with water-damaged areas and equipment was another key focus for contractors in the days and weeks following the floods.

“Some of the hazards are not knowing what’s in the water. We could smell oil, diesel and chemicals, but we didn’t know for sure [what was there] until the water receded,” Justice said.

Once customers’ control rooms were powerwashed and cleared for entry by local health officials, contractors were allowed in to as-sess damage and determine needs. Justice Electric referred to NEMA standard “Evaluating Water-Damaged Electrical Equipment” for assistance.

According to Jim Pauley, P.E. and vice president, industry and government relations, Schneider Electric, most electrical equipment has to be replaced if it has been exposed to water damage, and in particular, flooding.

“The most significant mistake made with water-damaged electrical equipment is an assumption that it can simply be dried off and reused. Not only is the water itself an issue for electrical equipment, but the debris and contamination contained in flood waters are also detrimental,” Pauley said.

Advice from the flood-lorn:

1. Generators

“If generators are down on the first level and you have a flood, that doesn’t do you much good unless they’re mobile and they can be moved or raised up and kept running,” said Andy Vorwerk, account manager, General Electric.

2. NEMA Standards

“Before rebuilding, power wash the flooded areas. Use the NEMA standards for handling water-damaged equipment,” said Dave Jus-tice, president and general manager, Justice Electric Co.

3. Reputable equipment

“Be sure to purchase replacement equipment from only reputable and known suppliers. It is not unusual for some individuals to use flooding situations to prey upon the need for replacement equipment and the speed that the equipment is needed,” said Jim Pauley, P.E., vice president industry and government relations, Schneider Electric.

4. Above-ground rebuilds

“For downtown customers with the main service entrance in the basement, when it comes time to replace the main switchgear, I would put it up on the first floor level and elevate it 2 feet above the floor to give them more of a cushion if flooding ever happens again,” Jus-tice said.

5. Continuous education/communication

“The investment in continuing education in technology, best practices and safety will payoff during a crisis. Also, gather your field leaders and office managers often to discuss issues, even daily if possible, to chart progress and assess the most efficient manner by which to serve your customers,” said Don Barrigar, president, Acme Electric Co.


Partner with manufacturers

Manufacturers played a key role in flood recovery.

“As the water rose, GE and distributor Crescent Electric worked together to stock truckloads of high-demand product such as panel boards, breakers and transformers for residential, commercial and industrial construction,” Vorwerk said.

GE assembly centers trimmed lead times in half—even several weeks—on special shipments of items such as 2,000-amp switch-boards.

Despite the clarity of NEMA standards, there were adjustments and obstacles during rebuilds.

“Time. We had to evaluate and proceed with what was needed. Then the city inspector stepped in and said breakers, dry-type trans-formers and safety switches with water damage could not be reused,” GE’s Vorwerk said.

GE worked closely with contractors to gather all available labeling from substation class transformers and busway to determine re-use. Upon review of product specifications, GE provided NEMA-compliant reuse guidelines back to contractors.

“Sometimes in older buildings, there are surprises, so you just rip out and start over, but you know the voltages, amperages and fault current and proceed from there,” Vorwerk said.

Third-party utility inspectors determined that, despite being submerged, most substation transformers were NEMA-compliant.

“Liquid-filled transformers, which are vacuum-sealed, were cleared for use if they were not contaminated and passed special test-ing,” Vorwerk said.

Comply with city emergency code

The scale of flooding required the creation of temporary administrative procedures for contractors.

“Our city officials had talked with city officials in New Orleans and Fargo, N.D., to learn how they had handled their floods, and it’s a good thing,” Justice said.

Shortly after the waters receded, unknown electrical contractors began arriving and working. To address the problem, the mayor of Cedar Rapids issued a proclamation requiring all contractors and workers in the flood-affected area to be registered with the state of Iowa. Additionally, all workers were subjected to police background checks for outstanding warrants and were required to wear a city-issued badge while working, said Jim Thatcher, Cedar Rapids Code Enforcement Division director.

“Our former electrical chief inspector rode with a police officer in a marked car and conducted patrols in the flood-affected areas. He found a few groups attempting to do electrical work without meeting the criteria,” Thatcher said.

From June until far into the fall, the city’s electrical inspection program doubled to six inspectors, said Dave Rickels, current Cedar Rapids electrical chief inspector.

“Even at that, we had to rely on contractors to inspect theirown residential services for about the first two months after the flood. Since then, we’ve reinspected most of these services.” Rickels said.

Fourteen months later, there is a new normal. Cedar Rapids seeks much-needed federal aid to continue rebuilding devastated areas of the community. Electrical contractors are getting back on their feet with the help of an $80,000 contribution from NECA’s National Disaster Relief Fund distributed to Cedar Rapids/Iowa City members Justice Electric Co., Acme Electric Co., Streff Electric, The ESCO Group and Gerard Electric Inc. While the entire I-380 corridor continues to fight through the recession, there is hope for a full recovery and a belief that the lessons of this flood will help countless others long after the power is restored.

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.

About the Author

Debbie McClung

Freelance Writer
Debbie McClung, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa.

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