Cleco Faces the Beast

July 1, 2006
After Katrina, Cleco Power was faced with restoring power to 87,000 of its 265,000 customers who live in 25 of the state’s parishes

Since decimating Louisiana and Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina has taken on near-mythical status in the minds of people around the world. One can only imagine what it was like to actually face the live monster, deal with the aftershock and then somehow try to get back to some degree of normalcy.

Katrina reached the coast of Louisiana at 6:10 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, and began mauling the area with 145-mph winds. Situated squarely in the middle of some of the most severely affected areas, Cleco Power (Pineville, Louisiana, U.S.) was faced with restoring power to 87,000 of its 265,000 customers who live in 25 of the state’s parishes. Within three weeks, despite insurmountable odds, Cleco’s Katrina Storm Team literally rebuilt its transmission and distribution grid and restored power to approximately 80% of the homes and businesses that could take juice. The team declared victory over Katrina on Monday, Sept. 26, just 29 days after she hit.

Three elements were pivotal in restoring the grid in such a short amount of time:
 Ordering capital project material to have on hand
 Using satellite phones during the first days of restoration
 Having storm-preparation and storm-restoration plans in which all team members have assignments and claim ownership of the plans.

The logistics provider was severely handicapped by the flooding in New Orleans and was unable to provide all of the critical support services needed for field crews. Cleco was able to supplement services by using its own resources to supply meals, water, ice, fuel and security. The in-house lodging team provided all-important housing in the shape of tents for the storm teams.


Cleco recognized early the importance of being able to communicate effectively with all of its divisions and partners, particularly during the first hours after crews arrive on a scene. The utility’s new state-of-the-art radio system was the only working radio system in the parish during the crucial first week after the storm.

There was no power and no functional landlines or mobile-phone services immediately after Katrina. While the system did begin to open up later, communication between Cleco’s command center and the affected areas outside their mobile range was difficult throughout.

local government

The utility hosts storm-preparedness meetings at the beginning of each hurricane season to address storm issues with the towns and cities it serves. Large, interested crowds joined by public officials, first responders and the media come out to hear a review of the previous year’s season, predictions for the coming one, response procedures and any changes to the utility’s storm plan. Cleco is currently working on implementing a dedicated phone number for public officials and first responders to report emergencies and other high-priority situations during storms.

storm response

Although cost is considered during the rebuild, customer satisfaction will always remain the driving force. The simple truth is, when the lights are out, customers are not concerned about cost. The speed of rebuilding the distribution system after a major event like Katrina, however, is very much about cost. The faster a utility rebuilds, the more resources that are needed, the costs of which ultimately wind up on the customer’s bill. Striking a balance between the two is hard to predict during storm restoration. Poor customer satisfaction or taking too long to rebuild the system may have higher long-term costs than the immediate cost of rebuilding the system.

Worker safety, both physical and emotional, is of paramount concern to Cleco, and this is probably never more relevant than during storm events. Crews are accustomed to working out of temporary facilities, and although during Katrina the number of facilities was higher and they were much larger than in the past, safety professionals were able to provide the expected range of services to employees. These included conducting daily safety meetings, passing out mutual assistance manuals, providing orientation to incoming crews, showing a presence in the field, and distributing personal protective equipment and other safety equipment.

The aftermath of the storm surge presented Cleco with a set of circumstances it had never dealt with before. Crews working in standing water for extended periods of time resulted in several cases of trench foot and other jungle-rot-type conditions. While most of these were successfully treated with topical antifungal creams, a few cases required further medical treatment. After the storm surge subsided, it left behind a thick layer of sludge, which soon dried and formed a fine dust that became airborne; this had the company scrambling to get enough dust masks.

SUpply Chain

All necessary safety supplies were provided to crews, but there was a longer than usual lag time in getting some goods shipped in because of the high demand. There was also a problem with cargo deliveries, as most of the freight service centers in the area impacted by the storm were not operational until several days after the storm. Next time Cleco plans to have safety equipment and first-aid supplies shipped to one of its service centers in the central part of the state and then transported where needed.

Communications key

Cleco’s corporate communications storm team worked to keep both the public and employees informed before and
after Katrina made landfall. Personnel from the communications storm team were dispatched to the affected areas while others worked from the Corporate Emergency Operations Center (Cleco storm room) in Pineville, where all official updates took place. The team used information provided during the daily updates from the storm room to keep employees, customers, media, regulatory agencies, and local, state and federal officials informed of restoration progress. Updates were provided four times each day through several different venues: e-mail, printed newsletters, a special phone number for employees, a 24-hour customer call center, customer service offices, company websites (intranet/Internet) and the media.

Cleco also purchased two recreational vehicles to serve as mobile customer service offices during the restoration until power was restored to local office buildings. The communications storm team and members of Cleco’s executive management team conducted live television and radio interviews throughout the Katrina restoration effort and sent satellite feeds of damage to media statewide.

Call and Outage management

In the first days after the storm, Cleco customers were unable to call in because of the damage to BellSouth’s equipment. Once phone lines were back, the call management system worked just as it was designed to. The high-volume call-overflow system handled outage reporting when the preset level of customers in the voice-response unit (VRU) queue kicked in. Due to the catastrophic level of damage to the system, however, the company couldn’t insert estimated restoration times on the VRU, but it did manage to place updates once each day on the front end of the overflow system and VRU regarding the areas that had power back. This proved incredibly helpful to customers who were out of town and wondering when to return. At the end of the day, consumers lodged very few complaints about the phone system.

Cleco’s outage management system (OMS) was also a tremendous help during recovery efforts. The mapping storm team used OMS to create special outage maps that customers could access online to see areas restored. This was also the first time these types of maps were posted on Cleco’s website, which soon became a primary information and communications tool for updates and e-mail service because so many customers were staying outside the affected areas.

Working conditions

Restoring power in evacuated areas after Katrina was difficult for several reasons, namely severe flooding, countless downed trees, gridlocked traffic, the local shortage of supplies and a destroyed phone system. Of all the obstacles faced, however, limited lodging and fuel shortages were perhaps the worst. Available hotel rooms were virtually nonexistent because of the large number of evacuees and other rescue workers. So Cleco worked with city officials and businesses to secure other facilities for workers to sleep and eat. In addition, four large air-conditioned tents with air mattresses and cots for 900 were erected. Fuel was diverted from one of Cleco’s power plants to keep storm-response vehicles and other equipment running.

Problems arose when the service entrances were damaged, requiring residents to obtain a permit before service could be restored.

When it is was unsafe to restore power to a structure, Cleco crews left door hangers informing customers why power was not restored. As customers began to secure permits, Cleco sent reconnect teams from other parts of its service territory to assist restoration crews with connect and reconnect orders. This allowed workers with the task of restoring power to focus on their job rather than having to stop to connect new dwellings or reconnect homes that could not take power when circuits were energized.

Future Storm Preparation

To ensure the company continues to improve its response to future storms, Cleco hired a storm expert last year to conduct an overall assessment of its response to both Katrina and Rita. The report includes successes and recommendations for improvements based on length of restoration, cost of restoration, safety performance and perception of employees, customers, regulators, elected officials and the media.

To prepare for future storm-restoration efforts, Cleco has made changes such as:
 Increasing the overall number of storm teams from 21 to 24 by adding logistics, storm-cost tracking and human resources teams
 Adding more employees to the individual teams to build depth and quicken the response time
 Creating multiple backup plans for logistics and supplies
 Securing more handheld radios to improve communications
 Establishing alternative resources to ensure crews in the field always have adequate housing, meals, water, ice, fuel and security to do their jobs.

In conclusion, as communities work to put their lives back together, the utility continues to test its plan internally and work to implement other recommendations from its storm consultant. Cleco has an excellent emergency-response plan, strong storm teams, a great deal of storm-restoration experience and a unique ability to adapt to storm conditions.

Using the help you get

In an effort to ease the financial burden on customers, the Cleco continues to pursue financial assistance from the federal government and other sources. The Louisiana Public Service Commission will re-evaluate and verify the storm costs, and determine availability of other funds in due course.

Like the majority of utilities in the United States, Cleco’s T&D systems are not covered by a private insurance plan. Pure risk-transfer insurance for T&D systems has not been available on a cost-effective basis for several years. During the past 20-plus years, several unsuccessful attempts have been made to form a Utility Industry Mutual Insurer specific to T&D assets. The utility industry in general was nonsupportive of these efforts due to the general perception that the utilities most likely to benefit from a T&D insurance mutual, to the financial detriment of other members, are those along the Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard where the highest potential for massive losses caused by hurricanes exists. Cleco insures generation stations, substations and offices for storm damage.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!