Another storm on the horizon and another image of electric utility trucks heading off to help with recovery efforts. That seemed to be an almost-nightly occurrence in late August through mid-September, as hurricanes Harvey and Irma made their way to the U.S. mainland. Those trucks and the crews running them came from across the country to help get storm-damaged distribution systems up and running again. Though the enthusiasm to help was felt at a grassroots level, the utility-fleet caravans were hardly ad hoc volunteer efforts. Instead, these were just the latest examples of the sophisticated programs that have developed to get help where it’s needed and work schedules coordinated, often before the first storm warning has been announced.
Thanks to networks of allied utilities that have been strengthened over the last decade, tens of thousands of electrical workers were mobilized to travel to Texas and Florida on little notice, and many of those crews were positioned before the storms even hit. In the case of Hurricane Irma, lineworkers and others hunkered down close enough to the storm’s projected landfall to avoid being held up by highways rerouted to direct all traffic from the region.
These networks are called “mutual aid” programs by municipal utilities and electrical cooperatives, and “mutual assistance” programs by investor-owned utilities. They began as simple, sister-city relationships in the early days of electrification. Their need became obvious once Americans realized the benefits of electric lighting and refrigeration; therefore, restoring service quickly after an outage became a priority.
“We eventually noticed that, once people have electricity, they can’t live without it,” said Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services, American Public Power Association (APPA).
These early regional arrangements grew more formal in the 1990s and have become particularly sophisticated in the last decade or so, with an increased connection to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government agencies.
“[Hurricanes] Katrina and Sandy were wake-up calls for us that we needed to work better with our federal partners,” Hyland said.
Those storms, with their months-long recovery periods, highlighted the need for more coordination across the full range of federal, state and local players involved in bringing power and other services back to affected communities. The benefits of these improved relationships were proven in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as service was restored to most customers in days, rather than weeks or months.
Planning for such events is a year-round affair, Hyland said. Representatives from the APPA, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Edison Electric Institute meet regularly with FEMA and other disaster-response partners to game out and troubleshoot possible responses to a range of potential catastrophic events.
“These plans are put in place and tested over and over,” he said. “Utilities know exactly where they can get lodging. They have contracts with caterers, they have contracts with laundry services. A lot of times, utilities will have meter readers, who can’t put up poles, delivering coffee.”
Utilities sending crews are reimbursed for workers’ salaries and other expenses in a variety of ways, depending on the affected utility’s ownership model. Municipal utilities and co-ops in declared disaster areas may receive FEMA funding to pay visiting crews. However, investor-owned utilities will need to fall back on insurance coverage or their own emergency funds to cover such reimbursement.
Of course, the system put into effect for Harvey and Irma becomes much more problematic when storms hit islands such as St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, as happened with Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Prestaging crews and equipment becomes difficult or impossible when trucks and personnel have to travel by plane or ship. Because both the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are served by municipal utilities, their assistance efforts were coordinated by the APPA, but mutual-aid workers from the mainland couldn’t reach the Virgin Islands until Sept. 25. Also, because Hurricane Maria took out communications as well as electrical infrastructure in Puerto Rico, Hyland’s group didn’t know how any workers sent to the island would meet their own basic needs of food and shelter, so those relief efforts were delayed even longer.
However, the commitment of electrical workers to such assistance efforts remains a constant, regardless of the location of a disaster, Hyland said.
“This is part of a culture. We have a culture of reliability, a culture of service,” he said
Hyland compared the dedication of lineworkers to that of firefighters and police officers. Like such public servants, electrical personnel are eager to step forward when a need for their skills is recognized.
“We have utilities that are calling us daily, and asking, ‘When can we come?’” he said.