Leave it to Mother Nature to throw two Category 4 hurricanes at the U.S. mainland the month before my wedding. And, leave it to Rick Bush, T&D World’s strategic director, to dangle in front of me the chance to fly down and cover them both — again, just a month before my wedding. I’m so glad my then soon-to-be and now lovely wife, Lisa, is so understanding because, of course, I could not say no.
If you cover this industry, you know the best of the best bring out their best when the weather and conditions are the worst. As mainstream media reported, and as recounted in the following pages of this special supplement, electric utilities not only had mutual assistance plans in place months before the hurricanes, but most already had experience with severe storms over the last several years. Many had at least one and sometimes more training drills to prepare for storm restoration.
Utilities created priority lists of line crews volunteering for mutual assistance or out-of-territory duty. Crews were assembled and prepped as national weather reports increasingly narrowed predictions that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma would hit landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas, and Naples, Florida, respectively.
Of course, there are considerations beyond my own personal schedule that should be taken into account when covering storm restoration. Major storms bring curfews, travel bans, fuel shortages, and airport and road closures. First responders are, appropriately, first in, followed by utilities. The press and public want to see and know what is happening after a storm, but there are more pressing priorities.
Thus, T&D World was on the ground in and around Corpus Christi about four days after Harvey blasted the Texas coast and in the week following Irma’s assault on Florida. As catastrophic as they were, both storms — including Harvey with its record-breaking, relentless and deadly rainfall and flooding — left behind plenty to see.
Corpus Christi itself seemed relatively normal just days after being hit by Category 4 Harvey, but my impression changed as a guide from AEP Texas drove me out to the Port Aransas and Rockport areas, to the Gulf of Mexico and very close to where the eye of Harvey landed. Along highways, wood poles either were gone or leaning at 20- to 45-degree angles, some still holding up line but many with line on the ground. Billboards were blown out completely as well as several storefronts and rooftops. In Port Aransas, which juts into the Gulf, the damage was perhaps the worst, with banks of debris lining the streets like snowbanks after a major Midwestern blizzard.
Heading northeast, up to and into Houston, more leaning, listing and detached poles and debris lined the highways and roads. On residential streets, curbs were lined with household items such as mattresses, furniture, appliances and torn-out sheetrock. At commercial locations it was much the same, albeit with the added visual shock of seeing hundreds of ruined chairs and mattresses from a hotel piled atop one another for disposal, and a pizza parlor parking lot with about 12 arcade and pinball games set out in the sun to dry.
Another common sight was utility trucks and utility workers. They were constantly everywhere, and it became like a variation of the children’s car-ride game to see what trucks from how many utilities could be spotted and named in one drive. They came from far and wide, as did contractors and relief agencies. And at just about any open hotel, breakfast lounges and lobbies filled with high-visibility worker vests, hard hats and work boots. Everywhere, people were saying "thank you" to anyone who looked like they were working with the power company to get their lights restored.
On to Florida a week later, and it was more of the same. In a Bonita Springs’ Home Depot parking lot, a CenterPoint Energy crew told me they had been working 11 straight days, first in Houston and then in southwest Florida (including two days of travel to Florida). Inside the Home Depot, lumber shelves were bare. Outside and across the street from the store was a residential neighborhood still underwater. The crew could not work there yet, but there were plenty of other downed poles and lines to address.
Later in the day, a crew from Kansas City Power & Light let me observe the restoration of a three-phase primary circuit. The crew patiently and diligently checked all perpendicular secondary circuits prior to re-energizing the line. The work took place near Punta Gorda, a bit inland but in a swampy, likely alligator-ridden area with many downed trees and nearly impassable access roads to scattered houses.
The work often was long, trying, sometimes treacherous and, I’m sure, seemingly never ending — not to mention, for many, taking place thousands of miles away from the comforts of their home and family. But to watch the crews, you would never have known it.
"Our guys volunteered for this, and they just love helping people and getting the power switched back on," was how one supervisor described it. "You would think they would be hot, tired and just ready to go home, but they’re not. Almost all the guys out here want to be here, as long as it’s going to take. People need electricity, and we want to make sure they get it back." ♦