Bouncing Back: Recovery Efforts in the Wake of a Record Year for Weather-Related Disasters

By all measures, 2017 was one of the most destructive weather years in American history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), last year’s natural disasters—including catastrophic hurricanes in Texas, the Southeast and the Caribbean, hail storms in Minnesota and Colorado, tornadoes and floods in the Midwest and South, and wildfires in California and Idaho—cost the United States more than $300 billion in damage.

As devastating weather bore down on many parts of the country and left local residents dealing with power outages, food and supply shortages, and loss of their homes, property and businesses, contractors nationwide rushed to help restore vital services and normalcy where they could.

Following ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR’s coverage of disaster recovery last November, representatives of electrical contracting firms on both coasts shared their experiences and recent relief efforts in the months since.

One of E-J Electric T&D’s Puerto Rico-based crews,  which provided disaster recovery on the island  from late November 2017 through April 2018. Credit: E-J Electric T&D / shutterstock / Robert Adrian Hillman
One of E-J Electric T&D’s Puerto Rico-based crews,  which provided disaster recovery on the island  from late November 2017 through April 2018. Credit: E-J Electric T&D / shutterstock / Robert Adrian Hillman

Called into action

It has been more than eight months since several catastrophic hurricanes struck the Southeastern United States and Caribbean, but the challenges remain immense.

“We’ve seen little slowdown since the beginning of storm season,” said Joe Rubino, general manager of E-J Electric T&D, a 6-year-old affiliate of Long Island City, N.Y.-based E-J Electric Installation Co. “We experienced a historic number of requests from Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut, and our first responsibility is to those communities we service regularly. But along with those calls, we were getting support requests from Florida, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.”

After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the company sprang into action. In conjunction with New York-based utility Con Edison, 12 members of the E-J Electric T&D team went to Puerto Rico the week before Thanksgiving and returned home in April.

“Our guys were there for months, working 16-hour days and seven day weeks in remote, mountainous areas amid the challenges of heat, bugs and no running water,” Rubino said. “In the beginning, it was hard to get materials and fuel there quickly, given that 100 percent of the island was out of power. We were losing tires every week, and it was difficult to get replacement tires for our vehicles. It was very demanding work, and our guys had to be resourceful, taking hardware off of old structures in order to get new ones up. We used our generators during the day and then loaned them to residents at night so that they could power up some things.”

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

While the majority of Puerto Rico has since had its power restored, Rubino remains concerned about the long-term viability of the restoration efforts.

“Today in Puerto Rico, citizens are moving debris where they can, and many people are helping, but a good portion of what’s been done to get the power back on has been a Band-aid,” he said. “There’s still much more work to do, and it will take years to get a sustainable, reliable system in place there.”

E-J Electric also provided support to areas of New Hampshire hit hard by wintertime blizzards.

“What were once normal two- to three-day storms have become five- to seven-day storms—they’ve definitely gotten more severe,” Rubino said. “We worked with local utilities to handle their restoration needs but had to find ways to supplement our workforce because people we would typically use were all over the country and in the Caribbean assisting in storm-recovery efforts there. Where we could, we supplemented journeymen with equipment operators on digging and pole-installation crews and added additional apprentices and technicians to support ground efforts where linemen would have been used. It’s a struggle, but you have to prepare for the future; we’re back to work handling our everyday workload but are always asking how we can be better prepared for the next storm season.”

E-J Electric has placed additional equipment on standby, so it can put the necessary tools and qualified individuals in the right place when they are needed.

Pole locations added challenges to an already difficult assignment for  E-J Electric T&D crews in Puerto Rico. Credit: Joe Lunardi Electric Co.
Pole locations added challenges to an already difficult assignment for  E-J Electric T&D crews in Puerto Rico. Credit: Joe Lunardi Electric Co.

“It requires a lot of coordination with the utilities and government agencies we work with as well as the right people on board because preparation is everything,” he said.

Regardless of where the company provides help, safety is always paramount.

“Because we’re going into new areas where the systems and voltages may be different, we always encourage our guys to take extra care and safety precautions before any restoration efforts are taken so that we don’t create a hazardous situation,” Rubino said.

Rubino said he will always recall and be inspired by the resilience of the local residents and collaboration by all responders in Puerto Rico.

“Though residents in Puerto Rico endured months and months without power, they still conducted school and made the best of a bad situation,” he said. “Seeing people coming together to help other people and would-be competitors collaborating as ‘one team for humanity’ truly makes everything worth it.”

Close to home

Anisa Thomsen, executive director of the National Electrical Contractors Association’s Redwood Empire chapter, remembers receiving the chilling news about the Northern California wildfires, which broke out on Oct. 8, 2017.

“We were at the NECA Convention when we heard that Napa Valley had been affected and that one of the hardest-hit areas was the city of Santa Rosa, which had never experienced a fire of that magnitude in its history,” Thomsen said.

The blazes, which ultimately burned over 245,000 acres, killed 44 people and affected thousands of homes and businesses, would come to represent the nation’s costliest group of wildfires on record, causing some $10 billion in insured damages.

“High winds over that seven- to 10-day period spread the fires so fast that, once one was put out, another would start,” Thomsen said. “Roads were closed, whole neighborhoods were leveled, and burned debris was everywhere. Residents wore masks for days because the smoke was so thick, and we packed up our home in Petaluma [20 miles from Santa Rosa] because our area was on watch. Everyone was in panic mode.”

Firefighters came from as far as Canada and Mexico to help contain the flames. For contractors and other responders, chaos reigned.

“Our training center and office in Santa Rosa lost power, which made it difficult to coordinate efforts, and the military started blocking off different areas to traffic, so no one knew how to report to work or if our buildings were even still there,” Thomsen said. “Some member contractors of ours and their families lost their homes.”

The Northern California wildfires blazed a path of destruction through the Sonoma County town of Kenwood last October. Credit: Joe Lunardi Electric Co.
The Northern California wildfires blazed a path of destruction through the Sonoma County town of Kenwood last October. Credit: Joe Lunardi Electric Co.

All these months later, uncertainty still remains.

“The first thing was to take care of all of the people who were displaced by the fires. The community really came through, housing people and rescuing neighbors, pets and livestock,” Thomsen said. “However, rebuilding has been impaired by the fact that the fire severely damaged area water pipes, causing them to leech potentially carcinogenic toxins into the environment and water. In addition, many residents were underinsured and can’t necessarily afford to rebuild; many are still living in hotels, RVs, campgrounds and temporary housing.”

Thomsen put out an SOS to the community and was overwhelmed by her colleagues’ generosity.

“We raised over $212,000, which we donated to the joint IBEW/NECA Labor Management Cooperation Committee for fire victims and ultimately dispersed among 25 area electricians who lost homes, cars, etc.,” she said.

Thomsen said the bulk of recovery work has yet to commence.

“As commercial specialists, the residential market wasn’t something that our members were heavily involved in, but area residents will have to choose local builders, and we expect to be called on to support a three-to-four-year construction boom,” she said. “We’re ramping up our residential apprenticeship program and encouraging participants to take classes while working elsewhere.”

While the fires devastated the area without warning and left residents demoralized and struggling, Thomsen remains confident in a full recovery.

A story from the front lines

Team members from Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Joe Lunardi Electric Co. weren’t only on the front lines fighting Northern California’s devastating wildfires in October 2017. They were victims as well. Below, Jolene Corcoran, president of Joe Lunardi Electric and president of NECA’s Redwood Empire chapter, describes how her family and fellow colleagues were impacted by the historic fires:

“Our Vice President Ron Lunardi (fire chief of the Occidental Volunteer Fire Department), VP Ray Lunardi (assistant chief of the OVFD), receptionist Rachele Lunardi (an OVFD firefighter), electrician Steve Balich (an OVFD captain), and electrician John Bianchi were on the fire lines in Santa Rosa, Glen Ellen, Kenwood, and Coffey Park for up to a week. Twelve of our employees were evacuated from their homes for a week or longer, and four of our electricians and some of their families lost their homes, vehicles and other property. Two of our employees took a long leave of absence; one hasn’t come back and will potentially be gone for another year while he rebuilds his house and that of his in-laws. With all of this going on, we still had to respond to our industrial and commercial customers whose sites and buildings had been affected by the fire. We were able to get crews on these sites as soon as the smoke cleared; with people missing from the office and field, the rest of our employees not only helped fire victims but picked up the slack in the field.

Newlyweds Sean and Megan Corcoran and other members of the Lunardi Electric team clean up what’s left of Sean and Megan’s home, which burned to the ground after wildfires destroyed their neighborhood last October. Photo courtesy of Joe Lunardi Electric Co.
Newlyweds Sean and Megan Corcoran and other members of the Lunardi Electric team clean up what’s left of Sean and Megan’s home, which burned to the ground after wildfires destroyed their neighborhood last October. Photo courtesy of Joe Lunardi Electric Co.

“My son Sean lost his home. Our whole family was in Seattle at the NECA Convention and got a call from my brother Ron at 1:30 a.m. that there was a fire and that Sean’s home might be gone. They lost everything, including all of their vehicles and Sean’s shop truck; luckily, their dog was staying with a friend.

“We had to find a way home. Sonoma County Airport was closed, and our car was there, so we flew into Oakland and rented a van. Sonoma County was a mess with fires on both sides of Highway 101 and on the guard rails. There was nothing in Sean’s neighborhood but burned trees and burned cars. Sean and his wife Megan came to our house that night and stayed for two months until they could find a place of their own. I was able to go to their wedding videographer and photographer and get copies of what they had, which was nice. Megan found the belt to her wedding dress in an area that had been a closet, and we found burned pins from Sean’s San Francisco Giants hat, but there wasn’t much left of anything, just ash.

“I think this disaster has changed all of us. People helped fellow neighbors and colleagues with recovery of personal property and memories, but everyone is looking at life and possessions differently. The quote everyone says is ‘it’s just stuff’ because they’re just glad to have survived the fire. This really brought everyone together.”

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