Courtesy of Quanta Services.
Linemen from Irby Construction stand in knee-deep water to help restore power on the southeast Texas coast.

Line Contractors Unite to Restore and Rebuild

Nov. 15, 2017
After high winds and heavy rain in Texas and Florida, contract linemen swiftly came to the rescue of impacted utilities.

Line contractors stand by, ready and willing to help when emergency strikes. So when two hurricanes packed a one-two knockout punch to Texas and Florida, line contractors swiftly mobilized their line crews. Many traveled from across the U.S. and all had to overcome obstacles to help restore power and rebuild the Texas and Florida electric power grids.

Coming Together

Quanta Services mobilized 1500 line workers for Hurricane Harvey and sent 3100 to Florida following Hurricane Irma. “Even though Quanta is structured as different operating units and compete against each other, when there is an event like this, the power of one goes into effect,” said Jody Shea, senior vice president for Quanta Services. “We coordinate the movement of resources and the support through a single chain of command.”

With so many Quanta Services crews on the ground in Texas, Shea drove from Tennessee to the western side of Houston, Texas, to witness the devastation personally. He arrived at about midnight and the next morning, as the sun rose over the hurricane-stricken city of Rockport, Texas, he found the damage to be similar to that of Hurricane Katrina.

“Katrina more or less hit a very compact area, but with Harvey, it was so spread out,” Shea observed. “I drove for two hours and continued to see power lines lying on the ground. Just when I thought that we were close to being done with the restoration, I would see houses that were destroyed and areas that were completely devastated. The impacts from the flooding will affect Texas for quite a long time.”

Great Southwestern Construction Inc. crews were on the road the day after AEP Texas called on MYR Group for assistance, according to Mark Hammons, regional manager for Great Southwestern in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

While Hurricane Harvey was typical to other hurricanes of similar magnitude, this time around the restoration hit a personal chord with some of the linemen. “Some of our employees live in the area where the hurricane made landfall,” Hammons said. “One foreman’s house was completely destroyed.”

Another MYR Group subsidiary, The L.E. Myers Co., also felt the impacts of the hurricane with flooded roads to its offices and flood damage to employees’ homes. “Even though these employees lost power to their houses, they continued doing storm work,” said Aaron Stupec, district manager for L.E. Myers in Pasadena, Texas.

Hitting the Open Road

Other MYR Group subsidiaries — E.S. Boulos, Sturgeon Electric Co. Inc. and Harlan Electric Co. — provided assistance following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Harlan Electric sent about 20 crew members to Georgia to work with Southern Company and another 50 to Florida to assist Florida Power & Light (FPL).

After Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, Westar Energy released its Sturgeon Electric crews through its mutual assistance program. The general foremen selected the restoration team based on who volunteered first as well as who had distribution equipment available.

On Monday, Aug. 28, the Sturgeon Electric crews hit the road. Around the same time, CenterPoint Energy and Texas New Mexico Power called on L.E. Myers, which then deployed 33 workmen to provide mutual assistance.

Before driving south, the contractors equipped their field crews with the materials and equipment necessary for the restoration. In addition to preloading Sturgeon Electric’s trucks with distribution tools, the contractor also packed up headlamps, rainsuits, drinking water, sqwinchers, bug spray, sunscreen and other standard personal protective equipment.

L.E. Myers ensured its distribution crews had their usual kitting and doubled up on all the secondary connections. In addition, the contractor prepared its chain saws with backup chains and oil, and the linemen stocked sufficient wire for both primary and secondary along with plenty of cover, load breaker tools and isolators. To get power on for as many customers as possible, L.E. Myers tries to keep it simple and be as prepared as possible, according to Stupec.

“Some of our crews already were tooled up and ready to go,” Stupec said. “We keep one to two tool kits ready for just these situations in our tool room. They include everything the crew will need to start work.”

Great Southwestern line crews stocked their work trucks with the proper gear. Armed with hoists, grips, slings, wire cutters, press heads, hand lines and other hand tools, 63 Great Southwestern linemen traveled in a convoy down the highway. Once they arrived on-site, they split ways to travel to the various restoration zones.

Sturgeon Electric’s crews each traveled on their own, and then they met up at night, which was safer for everyone involved, according to Tom Barclay, senior operations manager for Sturgeon Electric in Topeka, Kansas. “It’s typically a safety hazard to convoy with all the trucks, so we mitigate by convoying in smaller groups,” Barclay said. “Also, larger groups are harder to accommodate in restaurants, in traffic and in hotels.”

In the case of L.E. Myers, all the crews were local to the Houston area, so they traveled separately as they were working in separate locations. Before the crews started work, the general foremen looked for a safe route to the project location. Because of the heavy flooding, this was sometimes the most demanding task.

“Sometimes we had to wait for daylight in order to find a safe route,” Stupec said. “Roads were totally underwater, and in some cases, you couldn’t tell where the road was.”

Quanta Services crews also faced similar access challenges because of flooded roads, said Shea, a former journeyman lineman and owner of Service Electric. “I-10 was closed, and our linemen couldn’t get to where they had to report to,” Shea recalled. “For two or three days, crews were trapped in the flooded areas. By the time they knew they had to turn around, there was water behind them. They were stranded on islands in little towns east of Houston.”

Overcoming Obstacles

When the L.E. Myers crews arrived at the restoration zone, they described the atmosphere as wet and quiet, with a lot of flooding. “No streetlights were on and, when the wind calmed down, sometimes you could hear the faint sound of a generator running,” Stupec said.

Within the storm-stricken zone, the linemen came across downed trees, poles and conductor, a significant amount of debris, blown transformers, and flooded houses and cars.

“We’ve seen similar damage on other storm restoration efforts, but we have never encountered anywhere near the same amount of standing water,” Stupec said.

Following Hurricane Harvey, the heavy rain provided the most significant challenges during the restoration, according to Sturgeon Electric. “Wind damage is typically the bigger destructive force, but flooding was the bigger problem on this storm,” Barclay said. “It was hard to be productive with the storm surge water still in place, but we pushed through to help as much as we could.”

In addition, the crews faced an unexpected challenge —droves of mosquitos, which came as an unpleasant surprise to the linemen. To keep them protected while working in and near the floodwater, Great Southwestern provided the line crews with muck boots and safety nets.

For Quanta Services, the burgeoning mosquito population was the No. 1 topic for all the workers in Texas. “They tried some netting around their hardhats and their faces, and they used various types of bug spray,” Shea noted. “Some were using dryer sheets. They rubbed them on their hardhats and flame-retardant shirts, and that seemed to work a little bit. Overall, however, it was pretty rough with the mosquitos.”

In addition, the linemen also had to be careful when wading through the water because a lot of the local wildlife was disturbed, especially in Florida. “There were sightings of an alligator or two as well as several snakes,” Shea said. “Obviously, all those things were disturbed with the floodwater.”

Beyond watching out for wildlife, field crews also had to be aware of possible backfeeds into the distribution system. As residents returned home and switched on their generators, they could unknowingly cause a backfeed, putting linemen at risk. To protect its field workforce, Quanta Services provided all linemen with personal voltage detectors.

“If they had it on their person, and they were walking through backyards or lots and got close to something energized, it sounds an alarm,” Shea said. “Since there were so many contractors working on this storm, AEP also required the linemen to wear rubber gloves and rubber sleeves, and we also had a lot of grounds in the air.”

Accessing Work Locations

Crews also confronted the challenge of accessing their work locations. After the hurricanes made landfall, Quanta Services crews used airboats and specialized tracked equipment. For example, one of the operating units provided a Wilco, a large piece of equipment that can navigate through the water. “Within a few days, the water receded south of Houston but north of the city. We provided amphibious machines, which have tracks and propellers,” Shea said. “They can go into the mud and swamp, and when the water gets deep enough, they can serve as a boat and carry six to eight linemen and their tools to the work site.”

For Sturgeon Electric, the linemen rented small boats and canoes to cross the storm water. In areas with low water levels, the linemen wore rubber boots. “It’s a huge safety hazard to wade through any kind of storm water, but some guys do it when there are no other good options,” Stupec explained.

To provide an extra level of safety, L.E. Myers assigned one of its employees to walk ahead of the equipment and crews with waders on to inspect the depth of water and access to the work location. “If it was too deep or access was an issue, the location would be worked after the water receded,” Stupec said.

Arranging Logistics

Quanta Services crews were scattered across the restoration zone in Texas. For example, after Hurricane Harvey obliterated a local airport, thousands of linemen used the runway as a staging area. In the beginning of the restoration, the linemen slept in their trucks and trailers, but as power was restored, they were able to move to hotels.

When the Great Southwestern crews arrived on-site, the atmosphere as chaotic, which Hammons says is typical for the first day of storm restoration work. With so many crews coming in at one time, it takes time to get everything lined out as far as materials, logistics and lodging.

Initially, the crews stayed in trailers with makeshift cots and bathrooms, but eventually, they were put up in hotels. AEP Texas provided meals for the crews, but after power was restored, Great Southwestern began taking care of meals for its own linemen, who worked long hours to get the power restored.

Sturgeon Electric worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and during 16-hour workdays, the linemen fought mosquitos the entire time. “More than 16 hours a day were not authorized, or we would have worked them,” Barclay said.

Meanwhile, CenterPoint Energy provided hotel rooms and arranged meals for the Sturgeon Electric crews. “The meals, which were arranged by CenterPoint in a tent, were very good, which is unusual for storm work,” Barclay said.

Restoring and Rebuilding

During the restoration, the Great Southwestern linemen focused on repairing distribution lines by replacing poles and repairing down wire. In addition, the crews also demolished 24 miles of 345-kV line that had been destroyed completely.

L.E. Myers crews focused on overhead and underground residential distribution, which included secondary. In many cases, the trees fell on top of backyard power lines, snapping the pole or damaging the wire.

“We spent a lot of time accessing and getting into people’s backyards with the help of tree trimmers, and we had to replace a lot of snapped poles and wire,” Stupec said. “We typically worked 16-hour days, including weekends. No shift work was conducted due to safety concerns.”

During the restoration, Quanta Services crews focused primarily on rebuilding. In some areas, they would set a new pole, remove wire from the trees, splice it back together and make it operable. The damage, however, was extremely widespread, Shea noted.

“Not only the flooding but the winds destroyed the poles and wires, and when they started coming down and made phase-to-ground, the transformers started blowing up,” Shea stated. “In the areas where the substations and transmission lines were totally destroyed, it was more of a rebuilding effort.”

Some Quanta Services operating units focused on building the feeder distribution lines out of the substation and working with AEP to install a portable substation to get the cities back up and running. “The substation was in the middle of nowhere, and 5 miles of transmission lines were just lying on the ground,” Shea recalled.

In other areas, linemen had to serve as detectives just to find the existing power line. “They knew there was a line in a particular spot because they could see some of the stubs of the broken off poles,” Shea said. “When they couldn’t find the tops of the poles or the wire, they sometimes found it a mile away. They had to survey some lines from scratch and rebuild them.”

Focusing on Safety

As with any storm restoration project, safety was a top concern for the contractor crews and host utilities. For example, each of the operating units for Quanta Services had its own safety team. The safety professionals were not only available on-site, but they also worked with the field workforce to address any of their needs. In addition, Quanta Services coordinated a safety conference call in which lessons learned were reviewed as well as ways to support the field workforce efforts.

Quanta Services was committed to keeping its linemen safe during the restoration efforts in both Texas and Florida. “The linemen go out there, and they want to do whatever it takes to help people,” Shea said. “Once the call comes and we start deploying our workers, it’s like being a parent with kids out late at night. You don’t know when they are going to come home, so you worry about them. They often work in terrible conditions, so we put a lot of effort into making sure that 3100 went to Florida and 3100 came back home.”

According to Hammons, when Great Southwestern crews go out on storm work, their mindset quickly changes. “It brings the team together, and the guys raise their levels of awareness to make sure they are looking out for one another,” Hammons explained. “The crews get very focused on getting the public’s power restored as quickly and safely as we possibly can.”  

Coordinating Crews

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Hurricane Irma was right on its heels. As such, many contractors, which had linemen on the ground in Texas, had to shift resources to Florida. For example, Asplundh Tree Expert Co. LLC and its utility infrastructure subsidiaries mobilized more than 4700 employees to Florida two weeks after sending 400 employees to Texas. The workers focused on helping 22 utilities and municipalities to restore power.

In addition to the tree trimming crews, Asplundh also sent about 1000 employees from its infrastructure subsidiaries — Asplundh Construction, Utility Lines Construction Services, Musgrove Construction, American Lighting and Signalization, Grid One Solutions and American Electrical Testing. The crews, which stem from as far away as the upper Midwest and Massachusetts, assisted with assessing damage and rebuilding infrastructure.

Other contracting companies, including Quanta Services, had to handle the migration of crews from Texas to Florida. The company assigned a single storm contact, Brian Standish, who worked hand in hand with all the operating units to identify the availability of their workforce, where they were located and what kinds of equipment they had on hand.

Once the contractor crews were released from Texas, Quanta Services mobilized many of these crews to Florida to assist the impacted utilities following Hurricane Irma. In Texas, the crews worked primarily for CenterPoint Energy, Entergy, AEP Texas, Texas New Mexico Power, Lower Colorado River Authority and several cooperatives. When Hurricane Irma hit, Quanta deployed its largest amount of resources on a storm to work for Duke Energy, FPL, Georgia Power, Georgia Transmission and local cooperatives.

“Our Florida customers were calling and wanting to know when we would be released from Texas,” Shea said. “At that point, some companies were just getting started on the restoration from Harvey. When Irma hit, they released some of our resources, who often went home for a day and then directly to Florida to help.”

Compounding the challenge, Hurricane Maria blacked out Puerto Rico and inflicted widespread outages on the Virgin Islands. In turn, Quanta Services mobilized one of its operating units to Turks and Caicos, and considered sending crews to Puerto Rico and the impacted islands.

Gaining Appreciation

Throughout the hurricane restoration effort, the line contractors worked long hours and endured challenging conditions to restore power. In response to their hard work, the local communities were supportive and appreciative, Hammons said. For example, the linemen received a lot of special thanks, and the public frequently stopped by to give the crews food or offer their appreciation. “This does a lot for the guys’ morale, and it’s really what keeps the guys going in such difficult working conditions,” Hammons said.

Shea agreed. “When there is total devastation, people step up and the community comes together to help,” he said. “Even though the people didn’t have any power, they had their grills out and they were cooking meals to feed the linemen.”

Hammons was proud to be part of the restoration and thanked AEP for calling on his company to provide assistance. “We have a very dedicated workforce, and our employees are the most important part of our company,” Hammons said. “We appreciate their willingness to go work day and night to get the power back on as quickly as possible.” ♦

Sidebar: Utility and Line Contractor Crews Work Side by Side to Restore Power

When Hurricane Irma slammed Florida shortly after Hurricane Harvey flooded Texas, line contractors and electric utilities deployed their available linemen to the storm-stricken areas. Through the Southeastern Electric Exchange, workers from 90 utilities from 25 states and Canada came to Florida to provide assistance to Duke Energy Florida.

For example, Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) and its transmission contractor came to the aid of both Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy Florida. As part of the Midwest Mutual Assistance Group, KCP&L already had released 189 distribution contractor personnel and five transmission contractor personnel to Houston following Hurricane Harvey. As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, the utility deployed all of its line contractors, and 37 KCP&L linemen, 14 KCP&L support personnel and 150 tree contractors for the expected two-week restoration.

The first wave of resources departed Kansas City for Orlando, Florida, on Sept. 9. When they arrived, they were assigned to Punta Gorda, Florida, north of Fort Myers, Florida. Then, on Sept. 13, KCP&L sent a second wave of nearly 40 more distribution linemen and support personnel as well as 26 full-time tree contractors to St. Augustine, Florida.

When the KCP&L contractors and linemen arrived on-site, they were ready to get to work on the restoration. Because they were accustomed to restoring power following ice storms in Kansas, they had to deal with an entirely new set of challenges in Florida. "Of course, we are accustomed to snow, wind, rain, flooding and ice," said Jeremy McNeive, manager of media communications for KCP&L. "We were very aware of our surroundings as FPL and Duke talked about alligators, water moccasins and bugs. Staying hydrated has been a focus with plenty of fluid and breaks to cool down. Workers have to watch out for heat stress and have done a great job of staying hydrated."

The linemen focused on safety throughout the entire restoration process by organizing tailgate meetings every morning and also on each job site before beginning restoration efforts. "Linemen must be aware of their surroundings, wear V-watches and always work as a team," McNeive said. "There should never be an individual off by himself or herself."

During the restoration effort, KCP&L focused on rebuilding entire distribution lines, installing primary and secondary wire, and replacing poles. One challenge they consistently faced during the restoration was the amount of vegetation. As such, the linemen worked closely with the vegetation contractors to get vegetation out of the way to restore power.

"As all crews worked throughout the weekend, they continued to be in good spirits and very productive, restoring power to thousands of customers despite difficult conditions," McNeive said. "There are still several large outages, and restoration has been difficult due to limited access to poles, many of which are located on back property lines in low-lying areas."

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