Hurricane Harvey’s excessive winds and torrential rain inflicted significant damage to the AEP Texas transmission and distribution system as it passed through parts of its service territory in late August 2017. Then the hurricane stalled over the Victoria, Texas, area and began to track back, toward the Gulf of Mexico, over a similar path.
Although forecasters expected 15 to 20 inches of rainfall on Corpus Christi, Texas, the city only received about 8 to 10 inches of rain, and the roads were passable the next day. However, other cities served by AEP Texas, an American Electric Power operating company serving south and west Texas, bore the brunt of the storm.
“The eye of the hurricane took a northern turn to Rockport, Texas,” said Tom Coad, AEP Texas vice president of distribution region operations. “When I visited that area, miles and miles of poles and lines were lying off to the side and debris fields were everywhere. It was just total destruction. I saw masonry homes with the brick peeled off the side, roofs gone, tumbled-down walls and a lot of wire hanging down.”
When Coad first witnessed the sheer destruction inflicted by Hurricane Harvey, he questioned whether or not he had enough resources to help with the restoration. At the beginning of that week, when strong winds were blowing over the Gulf of Mexico, the leadership team was expecting a Category 1 — not a Category 4 — hurricane, and, at that point, the storm was projected to hit only a corner of the AEP Texas service territory further south. However, by the time the hurricane made landfall on the evening of Friday, Aug. 25, the storm had intensified to a Category 5 level.
That night, AEP Texas’ field and office employees, who were living in the areas anticipated to be impacted, boarded up their houses to ride out the storm.
“The wind was roaring, the shutters were shaking and the dogs were howling,” Coad recalled. “It got a little scary at some points in the storm, and, at one point, I remember turning to my wife and asking, ‘Did we make the right decision to stay here?’”
Two days before the storm hit, AEP Texas started preparing for the hurricane by activating its Incident Command Structure (ICS), which was developed by FEMA. Although the ICS approach had been used for less extreme events, Hurricane Harvey marked the first time it was used an AEP company in restoring service following a hurricane.
The team began requesting assessors, construction crews and logistics coordinators from its regional mutual assistance group (RMAG). In response, caravans of bucket trucks traveled south to seven staging areas set up within AEP Texas’ service territory. Ultimately, a total of about 5600 employees were dedicated to the restoration effort.
“I can’t express enough of my appreciation for all the help we received from all over the country,” Coad said. “I think Texas was really grateful to receive that help, and we couldn’t have done it without the resources that came in. There was an overriding sense that we were all in it together. Even though some of our employees lost their homes or didn’t have electricity, they remained focused on getting power back on as safely and timely as possible.”
Rather than bringing in all the resources at one time, AEP Texas staggered the crews, which arrived in different waves. All the linemen — regardless of where they came from — shared a brotherly bond, according to Coad. “I appreciate everyone who took time away from their families and homes to help us,” he said. “They were very excited about getting the customers back on, and they were like a family.”
When Harvey first targeted AEP Texas’ service territory, the utility responded by sending assessors to examine circuits. The assessment group contracted with a licensed third-party firm to get drones in the air to run down the main lines and record how many poles and how much wire was down on the ground.
“They could do the assessment from their office, and they did not have to get out in the field,” Coad said. “They drew up a work package based on the data from the drone.”
As weather conditions improved, AEP Texas crews and contractors began to restore power to the affected retail electric customers capable of taking power. In addition, AEP Texas used the traditional observation method from helicopters and airplanes. At the same time, crews immediately began addressing hazards created by downed power lines and electric equipment. At the peak, the hurricane knocked out electricity to 220,000 retail electric customers.
To get the power back on as quickly as possible, the field workforce first focused on rebuilding the main three-phase backbone. When it was de-energized, the linemen worked off the fuse laterals or the taps off the main line. After they got the taps back on, they were able to provide service to the homes and businesses.
By the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) records, the utility could tell which meters were not responding. If the meters were damaged, submerged in water or not communicating back for some reason, the utility sent assessors to walk down the streets and inspect each premise.
During the restoration, the utility developed certain criteria as to whether or not a residence could take power. For example, if the roof was blown off the house or the service entrance was torn off the wall, the assessors would collect this data on their mobile tablets to indicate it was not safe for power restoration.
Also, many of the substations around the Rockport area sustained damage. Within the Port Aransas area, a tidal surge swamped a substation and infused saltwater in breakers, which needed to be replaced. Other substations fared well during the hurricane and only sustained localized damage within the control houses. In these situations, the utility was able to get the substations up and running quickly before fixing the distribution system. While it will take an extended period of time to restore the Tatton substation, which received substantial damage due by high winds, the linemen were able to energize a temporary substation to serve one community until a permanent solution was complete.
During the restoration effort, the team focused on heavy construction and the repair or replacement of the poles, transmission structures and wires that were down. Linemen replaced millions of feet of conductor and worked together to rebuild the main system. Because it was challenging to get into muddy, wet fields where the lines were located, AEP Texas brought in tracked vehicles and backyard machines that could fit into tight spaces.
Focusing on Safety
Safety was a top priority throughout the restoration. AEP Texas had a defined safety group who went out and inspected the crews daily and identified any issues. The safety team published a newsletter about hazards each night and handed it out each morning to the crews in the field. For example, working in 95°F heat with 100% humidity and Texas-sized mosquitos presented its share of challenges.
“We didn’t have any nets for the crews to put around their hardhats, so we went on Amazon to order thousands of them, and we had them shipped to us overnight,” Coad said.
Also, because of the high winds, dangerous debris covered the restoration zones. “A lot of the debris could have caused a lot of problems for our workers, such as two-by-fours with nails in them, sharp pieces of tinfoil and tin siding,” Coad said. “We had to make sure everything was de-energized because there were many wires down.”
Because of the sheer amount of destruction, crews not only had to focus on restoring power, but also cleaning up the debris from hurricane-force winds. For example, hundreds of streetlights, which were gone or missing, had to be replaced. Also, thousands of meters that were not communicating must be inspected, and temporary structures ultimately will be replaced with structures built to the utility’s hurricane standards.
Strengthening Its System
Prior to Hurricane Harvey, AEP Texas had not experienced this severe a hurricane in more than 40 years. Recently, the utility has dedicated resources to hardening its system, such as installing larger-diameter poles and shortening spans of conductor. Even prior to the storm, AEP Texas already planned to invest about $1 billion per year for transmission and distribution improvements to its system over the next few years. Also, transmission structures that have been constructed within the AEP Texas service territory since 2000 use tubular-steel poles, lattice or spun concrete.
Because of its hardening efforts and the hard work of its field workforce, AEP Texas was able to restore power to 96% of those impacted by the storm by Sept. 9. As a result, the utility received overwhelming support from customers posting on social media channels as well as an outpouring of appreciation from town leaders.
“We received hundreds, if not thousands, of postings from residents even well after the storm had passed to offer support, well wishes and gratitude for the work the line crews were doing,” said Larry Jones, a spokesperson for AEP Texas. “It was incredible. At least 95% of the comments were positive, which you don’t see very often in social media.”
Shortly after the utility finished restoration to its customers, however, Hurricane Irma hit. As such, about 85% of the resources that assisted AEP Texas traveled to Florida. While the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma sharpened the utility’s focus on when it could release outside crews to travel to Florida, the restoration progress fortunately had reached a point where the utility felt it could begin releasing the outside crews.
“You would never expect another hurricane to hit while working on Harvey,” Coad said. “There was a lot of pressure about getting our work done because the Florida companies were asking for resources. We focused on getting our most devastated areas taken care of first before releasing crews to Florida. We then backfilled with our local crews, and we’re now picking up the pieces.” ♦
Editor’s note: To see a video from AEP Texas, visit www.tdworld.com/electric-utility-operations/aep-texas-rises-above-storm.