Line Contractor

The Keys to Getting the Power Back: Hurricane Ida prompts massive response to restore the power grid

Photos courtesy of Entergy Corp.
Published On
Dec 6, 2021

In August 2021, when thousands of residents were fleeing Louisiana and Gulf coast communities in anticipation of Hurricane Ida making landfall, lineworkers, tree trimmers and others with expertise related to restoring downed power lines came flooding in.

Although media outlets reported varying numbers of responders, after the worst was over, Entergy Corp., an electric utility serving Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas, confirmed that it had assembled an emergency response team of 28,000 workers from 41 states.

Pineville, La.- based Cleco Power, which serves 24 parishes in the state, engaged 2,500 responders from 19 states.

Why such a heavy response?

“The impact to our distribution system was unprecedented, damaging or destroying more utility poles than hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Delta and Zeta combined. Customer outages peaked statewide at nearly 902,000 customers,” according to an Entergy press release.

Outages for Cleco numbered 104,000 customers, according to their website.

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Hurricane Ida may be on record as the second-most-damaging hurricane in history to hit Louisiana, but that may not be an accurate impression of its severity.

On August 29, Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with wind speeds ranging from 130–156 miles per hour. Sixteen years before on the same date, Katrina flooded 80% of New Orleans due to levee failures. Although Katrina had achieved Category 5 wind speeds in the Gulf of Mexico, it had died down to a Category 3 before making landfall.

Ida also lingered longer, which caused more wind-related damage in Louisiana and nearby southern states. When Ida finally moved on as a tropical storm, it caused flooding, death and devastation in areas of the Northeast.

Those circumstances are notable to NASA scientists trying to determine if rising global temperatures may be causing hurricanes to take longer to lose momentum after making landfall. If their hunch is right, utility companies and line contractors are likely to face even greater challenges maintaining the nation’s power grid in the wake of hurricanes and tropical storms.

As far as being able to handle those events, Steve Gaines, chapter executive at NECA’s Southeastern Line Constructors Chapter, is cautiously optimistic, pointing out that line contractors and their crews have become more seasoned with time.

“The crews were prepared for just about whatever circumstance they were going to come across, but high temperatures and Louisiana’s coastal humidity was an immense factor of concern,” Gaines said. “Temperatures were in the hundreds after Ida passed.”

Mobilization of overhead line crews is key to getting power back fast, Gaines said.

“There have been quite a few hurricanes over the years that have caused utility companies to say, ‘How do we get thousands of workers in to restore an area?’ Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen improvement in the organization of these mobilizations,” he said.

The formation of Regional Mutual Assistance Groups (RMAG) has enabled massive responses to power-crippling disasters by paving the way for electrical utilities to share lineworkers, technicians and other workers.

After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies, developed guidelines for RMAGs to respond to events involving multiple regions, such as Ida, as National Response Events.

The organized cooperation of these RMAGs enabled Entergy and Cleco to restore power as quickly as they did to the number of customers that they did. Within 23 days, 932,000 Entergy customers in Louisiana and surrounding states were receiving electricity. Others in more remote areas were scheduled to be up and running before the end of 2021.

Restoration starts

As with most disasters, power was restored to utilities first, next to hospitals and first-responder facilities, and then to residences and businesses in the most heavily populated areas.

“People wanting their power back on can have a difficult time understanding the prioritization process of more densely populated residential and business areas than more sparsely populated areas,” Gaines said.

The stifling heat added to frustration. A few customers became aggressive and even shot at lineworkers, but the majority were supportive. Some people supplied meals and refreshment or displayed signs of appreciation.

Around 90% of Southeastern Line Constructors participated in Hurricane Ida restoration efforts, Gaines said.

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“But first, member contractors had to go to their customers and seek to be released.”

The scenario held true for Michels Corp., Brownsville, Wis., as well. Five days before Ida was predicted to make landfall, Entergy contacted Brian Olsen, regional manager for Michels’ Upper Midwest operations, who also received assistance requests from contacts within the national mutual assistance network.

Olsen contacted Michels’ electric utility customers about being released for storm restoration duty. All told, those customers released 200 workers for Michels’ response to Ida, Olsen said.

By Sept. 1, lineworkers were camped near or in the midst of the devastation: New Orleans’ 9th Ward, central New Orleans and parts of Mississippi.

For the first couple of days, Michels employees sustained themselves with nonperishable foods, snacks, beverages and water they had packed. “Bathing” was bottled water showers and personal wipes.

“We’ve been in this situation many times before, so we know what to expect,” said Jason Moder, construction manager for Michels Corp. subsidiary Michels Power Inc. and field chief for the company’s Ida restoration effort. “We knew we’d spend some time sleeping in trucks and things of that nature. When you have storms of this magnitude, and power is out for miles around, it takes some time for hotels and grocery stores to get up and running.”

Describing areas affected by Ida, Gaines said, “It was almost like a bomb was dropped.”

Utility poles were down in many locations, houses came off their foundations and cars were overturned. Trees were upended with roots exposed. Dangerous debris, such as nails sticking out of boards, posed hazards.

“Crews were having to clear trees and remove debris to create pathways before any electrical work could begin,” Gaines said.

Another hardship was that gasoline and ice were scarce for four to five days. Police were called to keep the peace at filling stations.

Gaines described how the storm restoration process plays out for many line contractors.

“For the first two or three days, until the damage assessment is complete, things will feel disorganized, but when a line crew shows up to the (utility company’s) second staging area to receive assignments and pick up materials, that’s when things start moving.”

Overall, Entergy reported a loss or significant damage to more than 30,000 distribution poles, 6,000 transformers, 36,500 spans of distribution wire, 500 transmission structures, 225 substations and 210 distribution lines.

“Power grid damage was pretty extensive,” Moder said. “One of the biggest factors hindering progress was the soil types poles were set in. There’s a lot of swamp land and soft ground.”

To assist contractors, Entergy featured a tutorial on setting poles in various soil conditions and settings on its website.

There’s no burying cable, given the water table, Moder said. In some instances, poles had to be set in concrete.

After Hurricane Katrina, Entergy commenced infrastructure hardening efforts, replacing older, less-resilient poles with sturdier class 1, 2 and 3 poles and other sturdier structures. The strategy seems to have paid off.

Zones of protection

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“Along a transmission path originating in Port Fourchon, La., where Ida made landfall, only three out of 387 newer, more resilient structures were destroyed,” according to an Entergy release. “In contrast, a 7-mile transmission line with pre-1997 design structures along the same path was taken down by Ida, with more than half of the line’s structures destroyed.”

As soon as circumstances allowed, Entergy began setting up worker camps and moving storm responders into available hotels, Moder said. Even so, working 16-hour days in extreme heat and humidity brings about exhaustion and complacency. To guard against injury and death, Michels relied on protocols to avoid electrocution from a common danger: back-fed power from home generators coming through the lines.

The company set up zones of protection by opening switches or fuses and installing sets of grounds.

“We basically go there and isolate, which means we take away any power source,” Moder said. “We also have a last zone of protection, PPE, which is rubber gloves.”

Beyond Olsen, who coordinated Michels’ response to Ida, and Moder, who supervised boots on the ground, Andy Schmitz, project manager for Michels, kept timesheets and billing for services on track and coordinated meals, hotels, provisions and even laundry services—which was no small feat for a company with 200 employees spread out geographically.

“Can you imagine camping out in a laundromat and doing laundry for 20, 40, 80 guys at a time?” Schmitz said. “It’s an essential service when you’re out in the field.”

Schmitz eventually found laundries that offered drop-off services, and his willingness to keep things going and support Michels employees aligned with the flexibility, endurance and commitment required of so many line contractor personnel called to disaster zones.

As the month wore on, Michels personnel began trickling back to their regular posts in the upper Midwest, depending on customer deadlines and needs.

By Sept. 29, Michels had concluded its role in Ida restoration efforts, having set 1,000 poles and installed hundreds of transformers for Entergy.

Michels getting back on schedule with its other customers would require personnel putting in extra hours for several weeks, even months.

“Storms and disasters let all of us know, we definitely need more people entering this field,” Olsen said.

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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