On Oct. 28, 2020, Hurricane Zeta made landfall in southeastern Louisiana, wreaking havoc on the region’s infrastructure. As the 27th named tropical storm and 11th hurricane in 2020, Zeta is just the latest storm in an exceptionally active Atlantic hurricane season that has slammed the Southeastern United States. Hurricane season officially ends Nov. 30.
The Category 2 hurricane, with winds reaching over 100 mph, left at least 6 people dead and millions without power as it made landfall and swept northeastward through the Southeastern and MidAtlantic regions.
For lineworkers, the extensive damage to the region’s electrical infrastructure in the wake of the storm meant they had a substantial restoration job ahead of them. After the storm, regional electric utility Entergy, New Orleans, reported that over 481,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana were left without power, with New Orleans and Jefferson parishes hit the hardest—about 178,000 of those outages were in the city of New Orleans alone. The impacts also included 2,747 poles, 573 transformers and 1,794 spans of wire that were damaged or destroyed.
Other states faced significant outages as well. Georgia Power, Atlanta, reported more than 800,000 outages in the state, while Alabama Power, Birmingham, Ala., reported nearly 500,000 outages in Alabama; Gulf Power, Pensacola, Fla., reported more than 51,000 outages in Florida’s panhandle; and Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C., reported over 500,000 outages in North and South Carolina. Mississippi, which is served by several different power companies, experienced over 220,000 outages, primarily in coastal areas.
Fortunately, restoration times after major storms have improved in the past couple of decades because many companies now have plans in place for pre-storm preparation, rapid damage assessment and mobilization of resources, such as Entergy’s Operation: Storm Ready program. Many utilities are also part of mutual assistance agreements that allow utilities to “lend a hand” by deploying lineworker crews to assist each other in restoring service in the wake of major storms or other natural disasters.
In Louisiana, for example, over 6,000 workers consisting of Entergy’s crews, contractors and mutual-assistance partners from other states are contributing to restoration efforts.
Chris Froehlich, vice president of Service Electric Co. in Chattanooga, Tenn., said that his company has sent workers to several of the areas affected by Hurricane Zeta.
“We have resources working for Entergy, Coast Electric Power Association [a co-op in Mississippi] and Georgia Power. Our workers are assisting in multiple states. We’ve had about 33 crews, about 177 resources, that were working this storm,” he said.
Jesse Alexander, a general foreman for Service Electric, who is currently leading a crew of 87 lineworkers down in Louisiana, said that although line repair/replacement New Orleans tended to involve short sections of wire, when they moved to the rural, swampier area south of the city, it was a much bigger job. One of the sections they worked on was about 20 miles long, and the crew has “replaced about 60 or 70 poles just in that stretch in the last few days,” he said.
Alexander also explained that working in hurricane-impacted areas certainly comes with challenges.
“In first few days, it’s hard to get around because of fallen trees, lines and poles that are in the roadways. It can make it a challenge to even get to where you need to be to do work. And of course, they had flooding here also,” he said.
Froehlich also remarked, “Getting our bigger equipment into harder-to-access locations, that’s always a struggle.”
Adding precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 certainly adds to these challenges. Froehlich explained that Service Electric has “a robust safety program” in place, but when sending crews to assist a utility, they must follow the utility’s COVID-19 protocols.
“If a utility has a more stringent program than ours, then we abide by theirs, but if it’s less stringent then we abide by ours. And obviously we abide by the CDC guidelines,” he added.
Overall, Alexander said that due to the number of hurricanes, “this year has been very busy,” but understands the importance of what they do. “We’re glad to come help anytime anybody needs it.”