Prior to 2017, the United States had never experienced two Category 4 hurricane landfalls in the same year. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma occurred within just two weeks of each other.
Hurricane Harvey hit Texas for the first time on August 25 and made landfall two more times in the following four days. Current estimations are that it caused $180 billion in damage and left 250,000 people without power. Fortunately, none of the major utilities suffered significant damage to their power generation, as a result of advanced infrastructure development. However, millions of Americans were without power because of downed lines.
Irma made landfall in Florida on September 10. In terms of outages, estimates range from 3.8 million to 6.2 million in Florida, 560,000 in Georgia, 68,000 in South Carolina, 31,000 in North Carolina, and 1,400 in Alabama. While power will likely be restored to most customers in these states within a week or so, some utilities expect to be engaged in rebuilds for a long time after that.
According to Kevin Moran, assistant manager, American Line Builders (Vandalia, Ohio), most of its member contractors have headed south to help with restoration as part of mutual assistance agreements.
"I would say that about 200 crews have been heading south to Texas and Florida," he said.
Where they headed in specific was determined by a number of factors, the most important of which was related to those mutual assistance program arrangements. For example, if a contractor works for a utility that has a mutual assistance agreement with a utility in Texas, that contractor would head to Texas.
"In other cases, utilities in the south reached out to some contractors directly," Moran said.
Many crews mobilized in advance and were on standby before the storms, so they were able to respond quickly. They were able to start emergency efforts as soon as the storms passed.
"I expect crews to be down there at least another week," Moran said in an interview on September 14.
One of these contractors is BFD Power Services Inc., Indian River, Mich.
"We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale on Sunday, stayed in a hurricane-proof shelter, and mobilized from Ft. Lauderdale to Naples on Monday," said Steven DuBois, vice president. "We anticipate being in Naples for a week to 10 days. Progress is going great. Florida Power & Light has been doing a fantastic job of organizing the resources they have."
Another is Kent Power Services Inc. (Kent City, Mich.), which has about 80 crew members in Florida. As was the case with other contractor crews, those from Kent Power arrived early, in anticipation of the storm.
"Our people left last Wednesday [September 6]," said Troy Kent, president, and he did hear some good news yesterday. "I heard that the crews in the state had cut the number of outages from four million to two million in just one day."
According to Steve Gaines Jr., chapter manager for the Southeastern Line Chapter of NECA, Tyrone, Ga., there are currently about 30,000 power line repair workers in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
"We have about 60 contractors responding to the area, with between 6,000 to 10,000 line workers," he said.
The current phase is focused on ensuring the generating facilities are up and running. The crews will then go to the feeder lines to restore power to the affected communities.
"So far, crews seem to be making pretty good progress," Gaines said. "Current reports show about 60 percent of power has been restored to customers."
One of the biggest challenges has been getting to the areas that need work in the first place.
"There has been a lot of sitting and waiting because of slow-moving traffic," Gaines said. "This is because of all of the people who originally evacuated and who then began heading back home."
In addition, trees and other debris have had to be cleared for the crews to access the affected areas.
Another challenge has been the gasoline supplies, which are still pretty lean.
"However, utility trucks, which are considered first responders, do receive priority," Gaines said.
While restoration is moving quickly, Gaines believes the region is looking at another one, two, or even three months of work, because of the rebuilds that will be required, started with removing the existing structures that have been compromised.
"There will need to be a lot of major rebuilds, especially in the Keys, where there was so much devastation," he said. Adding to the challenge will be how long it will take the crews to get their hands on the materials they need, such as the poles, wires and transformers.
One company already positioned for rebuilds is Michels Corp. (Neenah, Wis.), which has been involved in distribution pole replacement projects for over a year for Florida Power & Light and Keys Electric. The company has even opened an office in the region. Of course, this work has been interrupted to handle restoration, and additional crews from the company have also come in to do restoration work in those utilities' territories, as well as other locations around the state of Florida.
"We started rolling in over a week ago," said Scott Chiappetta, general manager, Central T&D, for Michels Corp. "Progress is occurring in all areas, but one area of focus is the Keys. This really is the worst area."
For more information on safe restoration after a natural disaster, go to www.ncdoi.com/OSFM/Manufactured_Building/Documents/HurricaneMatthews/Ev… and www.nema.org/Storm-Disaster-Recovery/pages/default.aspx.