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Hurricane Laura: Tracking the Co-op Response

Aug. 28, 2020
The NRECA's update to the nation's co-ops responding to Hurricane Laura.

Hurricane Laura left more than a million households without power in Louisiana Wednesday and caused more outages as it lumbered across Arkansas as a deteriorating tropical weather system.

More than 100,000 meters served by electric cooperatives in three states were knocked out of service, and local co-op crews, aided by contractors and volunteers from co-ops in several unaffected states, are working long hours to restore power.

Louisiana

Deridder, Louisiana, is 86 miles inland, but Beauregard Electric Cooperative faced a total system failure from winds topping 120 mph early Thursday morning.  Hurricane Laura made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane and has been described as the most powerful storm ever to cross the Louisiana coast.

The co-op’s 41,000 members are without electricity and, with cellphone towers among the debris strewn across the countryside and landlines out of service, the co-op is working to restore basic communications.

“Our members will not be able to report their outages until the towers are repaired in our region,” said Kay Fox, vice president of marketing and member services for Beauregard EC.

“We hope to restore every member soon,” co-op officials wrote in a social media post, advising members to prepare for extended outages because 95% of members are still without service.

“Our best estimates are that restoration could take a couple of weeks,” said Addie Armato, director of member engagement for the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, who is helping to coordinate communication on behalf of Jeff Davis Electric Cooperative.

The Jennings, Louisiana-based distribution co-op was also in Laura’s direct path and faces major rebuilding.

“There is extensive damage to the power system. Consumers should plan to be without power for several days,” Armato said.

A storm surge exceeding 10 feet along the Louisiana coast pushed high water into bays and caused widespread flooding in some areas. Co-ops serving coastal communities may have to wait for water to recede before completing damage assessments in some areas.

“The recovery and rebuilding effort will take time,” said ALEC CEO Jeff Arnold.  “The extreme floodwaters will complicate the restoration process.”

Still, crews made substantial progress once winds subsided as the storm moved further inland.

Southwest Louisiana Electric Membership Corp. has about 26,000 meters still without power, down from 108,000 in the hours after Laura made landfall early Thursday.

“Vermilion Parish continues to have deep floodwaters that are impassable in some areas, and the westernmost part of our system sustained significant damage,” said Mary Laurent, SLEMCO’s communications coordinator.

But co-op dispatchers have been busy communicating with crews by telephone, radio and mobile devices directing them where to go and keeping them working just behind the vegetation management and debris-clearing crews opening pathways to damaged circuits.

Texas

Livingston, Texas-based Sam Houston Electric Cooperative restored service to 5,000 of the 6,000 meters on its distribution system Thursday, and crews were out before dawn Friday morning to complete the job.

“We expect to wrap up Hurricane Laura restoration work by mid-day,” said Keith Stapleton, chief communications officer for Sam Houston EC. “We received good news overnight on generation and transmission in our region, and we do not anticipate being impacted by rolling blackouts today.”

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which manages the electric grid for parts of East Texas and Louisiana, recommended in the hours after Laura made landfall that utility providers manage their power usage closely and employ temporary blackouts as a means of reducing the chances of widespread problems.

Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative is working to restore service to about 23,000 meters. Crews spent most of Thursday dodging heavy downpours as they assessed damage to the San Augustine-based distribution co-op’s system.

The co-op’s eight-county service territory includes 7,000 miles of line and 34 substations.

“With hundreds of broken poles, lines down and scattered pine trees, estimated outage restoration times are not yet available,” co-op officials told members in a social media post.  “Work is focused on repairing the transmission lines and main lines serving large areas.”

Arkansas

The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas reported outages impacting about 9,000 members Friday morning, down from 20,000 as remnants of Laura pushed northeastward through the state Thursday.

Five of the state’s distribution co-ops accounted for the majority of the outages, with other co-ops reporting scattered problems.

“We are optimistic that crews will be able to restore service to the remaining members that are without service today,” said Rob Roedel, spokesman for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas.

Mutual Aid  

While Hurricane Laura developed rapidly from a tropical depression to Category 5 strength before making landfall as a powerful Category 4 storm early Thursday, statewide safety and loss officials began coordinating a mutual aid response Monday.

Mutual aid geared up rapidly and, as of Friday morning, co-op crews from several southern states were headed toward Louisiana and East Texas to assist with restoration work. Many were expected to join the efforts Friday or over the weekend.

Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina have sent crews, vehicles and equipment to help.  Crews from parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, Florida and Oklahoma are also assisting the hardest hit co-ops.

Fourteen crews from co-ops in South Carolina are headed for the service territory of Jeff Davis Electric Cooperative, said Van O’Cain, director of public and member relations for South Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. “Six of our co-ops are sending construction crews made up of four to five personnel each.”

“As everyone who lives in our region knows, with hurricanes, it’s never a matter of ‘if’ but of ‘when,’” said Baldwin Electric Membership Corp. CEO Karen Moore. “Just a few days ago, it looked as though this storm was headed directly toward our own coastline.”

The Summerdale, Alabama-based distribution co-op had a 10-person crew on the road early Friday, headed to help Beauregard EC early Friday.

“The day will come when we may need help from our sister cooperatives in the wake of a major storm,” Moore said.

Besides food, water and other necessary items to help sustain themselves, the Baldwin EMC crews have also packed personal protective equipment to work safely during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are always glad for the opportunity to send crews and share our resources with other cooperatives in need of assistance, and we’re grateful to be a part of a community of mutual aid,” Moore said.

Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.

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