On Easter Sunday night, a severe storm blew into Entergy Arkansas’ service territory, and by the next morning, 128,000 customers were out of power in south Arkansas. The utility has not experienced as much damage since the ice storms of 2000. Hundreds of power lines laid down on the ground, and 1,375 of poles were broken.
Like other utilities, Entergy Arkansas contended with not only restoring power and repairing infrastructure, but also abiding by recommended social distancing and sanitation guidelines due to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.
“This was really a storm within a storm,” said David Lewis, media relations for Entergy Arkansas. “Storm One was COVID-19 and all the associated process changes, such as having most of the office staff working remotely and assuring customers that we would not disconnect anyone for non-payment until further notice. Then when the thunderstorms hit, that was an additional set of challenges, to say the least.”
Fortunately, Entergy Arkansas has a significant amount of experience with storm damage and recovery.
“We have detailed plans that we rehearse and update regularly,” he says. “We even have plans that consider recovering from a storm while a pandemic is happening. But this pandemic was bigger than anyone had foreseen, and the storm was massively destructive. So we adapted our plan to the challenge before us and handled it.”
Here’s how the utility was able to overcome these challenges while still accomplishing work in the field safely and efficiently.
Working with Outside Crews
With a few days of advanced warning, the utility put all employees on alert, including office staff who transition to storm roles, such as logistics support, when necessary. Also, the utility advised its line crews in north Arkansas, which was not in the path of the storm, to pack to travel the morning before the storm hit.
Compounding the challenge, Entergy Arkansas had help pour in from Entergy Texas and Entergy Louisiana as well as a large contingent of contractor line crews and tree trimmers. Normally, Entergy Arkansas has about 400 linemen in Arkansas, but with the extra help, it had more than 3,000 linemen working the storm.
“We had a great deal of help on this storm,” Lewis said. “We put each visiting crew through a safety orientation before they start work, and that includes all the coronavirus health and safety precautions.”
Entergy has been updating pandemic preparations since January. Entergy officially activated its Pandemic Response Plan on March 2. In turn, Entergy Arkansas began changing its processes by requiring field workers to practice social distancing and personal hygiene guidelines while working out in the field. Meanwhile, office staff who could get their work done remotely began working from home, relying on remote access to office computers and conference calls for meeting with colleagues.
Protecting the Field Workforce
Then about a month later, the storm hit. Over the course of eight days, Entergy Arkansas worked alongside mutual assistance and contractor crews to restore power. Unlike as in past storms, however, the utility managed this restoration much differently due to the pandemic.
“It's critically important to keep our operations up and running, serving our customers and communities while we all live through this crisis,” Lewis said. “That means focusing on the health and safety of all our colleagues. Therefore, we have taken numerous actions to protect our workforce, including:
- Following official public health recommendations regarding social distancing and proper hygiene.
- Encouraging all employees to self-check for symptoms of COVID-19, and, if detected, seek medical attention.
- Restricting access of facilities to essential workers only.
- Adding extra hand washing stations and sanitation supplies For those essential work places and employees.
- Conducting no-touch temperature and general COVID-19 health screenings at designated critical sites.
- Distributing face masks for use when social distancing is not attainable.
- Suspended all non-essential domestic and international business travel by commercial airline and other forms of mass transit.
Normally, during the storm recovery, Entergy put two to a hotel room, but to maintain social distancing, each worker had his or her own room. The utility needed twice as many rooms for a workforce who eventually got up to 3,308 workers.
Feeding the crews in the field presented obstacles as well. Oftentimes, the workers are fed in a communal way with sometimes hundreds of people coming together or smaller groups dine at local restaurants. Neither of those options were available due to COVID-19, so meals were individually boxed and eaten in the field.
“Even this was a challenge because caterers were mostly shut down, too, and were low on inventory,” he said. “In the future, we can begin earlier on identifying food vendors who can feed large quantities of people within social distancing guidelines. This will give them more time to be prepared with inventory and staff.”
The utility also tracked down sources of hand sanitizer and supplied it to the field workers. Entergy Arkansas required its field workforce to wash their hands frequently, maintain social distancing and wear face coverage in situations where it was impossible to stay 6 ft apart.
“Working outdoors with faces covered is uncomfortable, but necessary in some situations,” he said. ““Social distancing in the field is a challenge and requires additional focus on job planning and communication to ensure each worker is aware of their assigned task and knows what the other is doing.”
As Entergy Arkansas recognized the National Lineworker Appreciation Day, the community thanked the linemen for their hard work and commitment to getting the job done amidst the pandemic.
“Safety being our top priority, we will continue closely monitoring the situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting potential impact in the areas we serve and maintain facilities. We are in close contact with local, state and federal agencies,” Lewis said.