Stormy Weather

Sept. 1, 2012
Utilities need to be prepared for the worst — it often happens.

Ask Rodney Blevins, vice president of distribution operations for Dominion Virginia Power, how many storm restorations efforts he has been on, and it only takes him a second to reply. “Too many,” Blevins blurts out. “I don't think I've missed a major hit in a dozen years.”

Blevins also can tick off a wide-ranging litany of significant meteorological events on the East Coast of the United States he has seen just in the past few years — everything from Northern Virginia's record-setting “Snowmaggedon” snowfall, which shut down the federal government and collapsed schoolhouse roofs a couple of years ago, to hurricanes such as Irene in 2011 and Isabelle in 2003. Irene, in fact, was preceded by a rare earthquake in Virginia and North Carolina just days before.

When the earthquake hit — completely unexpectedly and without any warning — Dominion already had crews in the field ready to take on Hurricane Irene, whose landfall had been predicted for days. “We had two units tripped off-line [by the earthquake],” Blevins said, “but we already had people on the ground and ready to go.”

Being on the ground and ready to go is a crucial part of responding to weather-related outages. With hurricanes, advance warning of landfall means utilities can prep logistics, ship supplies ahead of time, get crews lined up, set up communications facilities and even evacuate beach areas such as the Outer Banks of North Carolina ahead of a storm. Irene did not disappoint, either, making landfall on the North Carolina and Virginia coasts on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011, and knocking out electrical power as far inland as Richmond, Virginia.

“Irene came ashore Saturday, and we awoke Sunday morning to having a million customers out of power,” Blevins recalled.

Immediately, though, the Dominion team, partnering with other Southeast Electric Exchange utilities in a mutual assistance pact, began the process of restoring power. First there was an assessment of the scope and scale of damage. Blevins says, due to the storm's duration and sustained wind speeds inland, significant damage was done to the higher, more mature tree canopy (relative to the coast) and less-resilient structures.

Nonetheless, Dominion set and met aggressive goals of 75% restoration by the Wednesday following the storm, 90% to 95% on the following Friday and the remainder on the following Saturday, which just happened to be Labor Day weekend. “For the beach communities in our area, Labor Day weekend represents a tremendous revenue opportunity,” Blevins pointed out.

Dominion estimates it used more than 6,000 wire splices — the same amount typically used in 18 months under normal conditions — and replaced 11,250 insulators, 1,250 utility poles, 4,580 crossarms and 760 transformers to repair damage caused by Irene.

Tornadoes Cause Instant Damage

At least hurricanes provide some advance warning to utilities. Tornadoes, on the other hand, pop out of the sky in the Midwest and South with a velocity and vengeance that is not forewarned. Take, for instance, the EF2 tornado that touched down in northeast Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon, May 22, 2011, tearing a half-mile-wide by 14-mile-long path through the city.

Winds estimated at between 110 mph and 130 mph ripped up centuries-old trees, tore roofs off houses, overturned railcars in a local rail yard, smashed cars and caused an estimated $200 million in damages. In the wake of the storm, at least 34 homes had to be torn down. Xcel Energy estimates it replaced more than 250 power poles and restored power to more than 40,000 homes and businesses in the wake of the twister.

Craig Hayman, a 35-year employee of Xcel Energy who is currently the utility's control center and operations director, says he has never seen anything like it before or since.

Hayman says first responders told him, “‘Think of the worst storm damage you have ever seen, then multiply it by 10 times.’ When I got there, I understood what they meant,” he said.

Two key factors made this particular tornado “a real game-changer,” Hayman recalled. One factor was it hit a densely populated urban area. A second factor was the nature of the physical property — older homes, almost all overhead power lines and large, well-developed and older tree canopy. “We had centuries-old trees taken down, and that's what took down all our overhead power lines,” Hayman explained.

The Minneapolis Park Board estimates the city lost more than 6,000 trees in the storm, and Hayman says a couple of days were devoted just to clearing streets to get equipment and manpower to the affected area. On the Sunday night of the storm, Hayman's control center put out a call for mutual assistance, bringing in an estimated 500 workers from neighboring utilities and states such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska as well as contractors from Chicago. “It worked out well they couldn't get here for a day or two,” Hayman noted. “There were so many trees down and so much destruction, we couldn't get them in close anyway.”

Another challenge was the preponderance of overhead lines. “I remember tornadoes in Hugo and Rogers [two Minneapolis-area suburbs], but a lot more there was underground,” Hayman said.

Following the Minneapolis tornado, damage was so significant crews sometimes had to be sent out with historical maps of the pre-storm grid. “We had situations where the house had slid 25 yards to 50 yards,” Hayman explained. “We had to look at an old map and say this needs to go on the east side of the alley, because you really couldn't tell where it had been before.”

Tornados and torrential rain also hit Entergy's territory in 2011. In particular, the Memphis, Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas, area got hit with major windstorms, rain and tornadoes in the middle of April. The utility estimates it lost 51 structures (transmission towers, mostly), 14 transmission lines and at least one significant 500-kV line. Another 500-kV line was lost to a subsequent tornado pass.

Paul Chamoun, manager of area transmission and substation construction for Entergy Arkansas, and Brock Durham, senior transmission engineer for Entergy, remember the storms well.

“The damage was so extensive we spent the first two days assessing and two days after that trying to clear lines and road crossings,” Durham described. Simultaneously, he adds, Entergy engineers had to design replacement lattice towers and have their designs vetted and approved within a week to start moving in new materials.

Durham says initial estimates indicated the new line would not be up until the middle of July, but, with more than 220 crew members involved in all aspects of design and construction — drilling and pole setting, tower construction, helicopter crews, and safety and environmental assessment personnel — Entergy managed to compress what would normally be a six-month job into a one-month restoration. “It was up by the first of June,” he said.

The effort was hardly without significant challenges. For starters, a subsequent tornado not only knocked out another 500-kV line, but took out eight towers near Little Rock, Arkansas. Moreover, two or three weeks into the cleanup torrential rains hit, flooding the farm fields of northeastern Arkansas and leaving some 20 structures suddenly underwater.

“We had to use helicopters to retrieve material out of the water,” Chamoun said. “We had to deal with flood waters from start to finish.”

Greg Grillo, director of project management and construction at Entergy, also holds the title of “incident commander” for Entergy storm restoration. The Memphis tornadoes, he notes, were only one in a series of weather-related challenges Entergy dealt with in 2011. The utility has a system command center in Jackson, Mississippi, that is activated for any natural or man-made event threatening Entergy territory. Grillo says it sprung into action in January with the ice storms, in April for the tornadoes and pretty much all through May for flooding.

The command center performs another critical function, according to Grillo. “We do our annual drills here,” he said. “We also do different state drills here, and get restoration resources lined up and work with our operations people to make sure the system gets back up.”

The command center can be either partially or fully activated, depending on the severity and location of the threat or disruptive event. Among the resources brought in to activate an actual event are planning chiefs, engineers, resource or logistics staff, section chiefs, internal and external communications officers, and safety officers.

“We need the ability to communicate quickly and effectively with state and government agencies during an event,” Grillo pointed out.

Given Entergy's geographic territory and exposure to major weather events, Grillo says command center mobilization at Entergy is well rehearsed. “Unfortunately, we are really good at it because we have a lot of experience,” he quipped.

Rusty Burroughs, director of business services for utility operations (logistics) at Entergy, argues that effective storm restoration begins before the first weather warning is sounded or the first raindrops fall.

“We actually start post-event,” Burroughs said. “When we have an event, we capture all lessons learned and create actions around what we can do to improve systems going forward.”

Burroughs and section logistics chiefs meet at least twice a year to discuss lessons learned and how to apply them to next event. This is followed by tabletop drills in which resources staff are given a mock event and go through all the steps of securing meals and lodging, transportation and equipment, and, of course, human resources (workers) for the event. These mock events are modeled on real-world examples, and Burroughs notes the specific characteristics of individual events often have a significant effect on resource planning and retrieval.

“In a hurricane, we might have 48 or 96 hours to prepare and set up suppliers,” he noted. “But hurricanes are more predicable than ice storms. That kind of weather changes so quickly, there is often not much warning. A one-degree change in temperature can make a huge difference.”

Along with personnel, Burroughs and his crews must provide and account for catering and meals, lodging (either in local hotels or sometimes air-conditioned or heated tents), fuel for vehicles, parking and staging areas, uniforms and laundry, shower facilities and portable toilet facilities. His team has a ready roster of both regional and local vendors on hand to help, and calls go out as soon as a storm restoration assessment is made. Mutual assistance partners — neighboring utilities — are the first call for additional personnel, but contractors also may be brought on for either specific tasks or projects, or to supply additional help depending on the scale and duration of the event.

Equipment and tools are usually fairly standardized among utilities, Burroughs says, along with the fact that service trucks in the affected area (if available) usually have most of the gear needed for work in that region. For instance, most service trucks are already equipped with hard-case laptops for daily work. With that said, all incoming crews first go to a staging area where they check in to ensure they were requested and expected, and to evaluate tools and training needs. All personnel are given safety training before doing any work in a storm zone.

Both the specific and general nature of requests for assistance can be both fluid and fungible. “Ice storms may strengthen or die; they go through phases.” Burroughs noted. “We will give our mutual-aid partners some estimate of the total number of resources and then whether it is vegetation, linemen, servicemen, scouts or even logistics support that we need. Typically, we will try to have them understand the big picture and let them bid on who they can provide.”

Wind Takes Out Wind

Back in Minnesota, Mike Dunham, transmission line construction manager for Xcel Energy, recalls a major windstorm and thunderstorm in 2011 in which 80-plus-mph winds knocked out transmission lines and — somewhat ironically — wind generation itself for Xcel Energy.

The storm hit on the Friday before the July 4 weekend. Dunham says he had just pulled into his driveway to begin the holiday weekend when he heard on his car radio about a severe storm near Redwood Falls, Minnesota. That storm would cut a path 30 miles wide and 100 miles long through the southwestern corner of the state, taking out nearly 100 miles of transmission line and a major wind energy collector system.

Dunham scrapped his Independence Day weekend plans, and he and a crew of about 100 Xcel Energy employees, along with an additional 100 contractors, set about restoring power. Crews and equipment were brought in from as far away as the western Dakotas, Wisconsin and Michigan. Restoring transmission lines in a largely rural area featured both advantages and challenges, Dunham said.

“We had a lot of nice luxuries,” he recalled. “We were able to negotiate with farmers and gravel pit owners to use their land for staging, where we could lay down the materials coming in. We leased the old Bayliner boat factory as a staging area. Because you can do a lot more on a handshake there [in a rural area], we were able to get access to the land and work out the details later. We had more room to operate. I couldn't envision getting this volume of material in this quickly anywhere else.”

Safety also was easier to manage without a large population around. “We did not have a lot of constraints,” Dunham summed up. On the other hand, Dunham talks about the challenge of securing lodging for all the people brought in to work in largely rural areas. “There are sometimes not enough hotel rooms,” he noted. “We have had to bed people down an hour away.”

Dunham says the challenges and rewards of working storm duty are often one and the same. “It's very exciting,” he explained. “You have all hands on deck, and the motivation factor is really there. The worst part is the chaos, keeping everybody safe, both the public and our workers. Sometimes you feel like you are flying by the seat of your pants.”

“The most challenging aspect in the field is safety,” added Chamoun of Entergy. “You have a number of off-system crews show up, and having them all work within our guidelines and keeping them safe is a challenge. Another challenge is materials, just getting them all to the job site so that what you need is there when you get there. The most rewarding aspect is working a storm and no one gets injured. It is also rewarding because it is so challenging. You have to work with many different groups and you have to do some engineering in the field.”

“Everyone works long hours and is fatigued, and keeping everyone focused, that is a challenge,” added Entergy's Durham. “But working that many hours, that long, with that many people and walking away with no incident or accident on the job is a great motivation.”

Robert Adams, a senior lead communicator for Entergy who worked in storm restoration for both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, offers a rather resonant observation about storm restoration duty.

“Sometimes you are working with people who are working diligently and excellently all day, and providing great service while their homes and families were or are being displaced by that very storm,” he said. “During Hurricane Katrina, in the evenings, when things would slow down a little bit, we would watch the news coverage, and we would see people sniffling and in tears.”

Empathy for those who experience loss in a storm also extends to the general population. “Facing the personal tragedy can be really difficult,” said Hayman of Xcel Energy. “People lose their possessions and whole families are torn apart. It can be very hard to witness.”

On the reward side, Hayman notes the tremendous satisfaction of being able to help others in time of need. “You get instant gratification from being able to help somebody when they have just lost so much,” he commented. “Turning the lights back on or getting the water running makes such a difference, it lifts up people's hopes. When you can supply things like power and water, it just means so much.”

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