Let the Rebuild Begin

Dec. 1, 2008
With storm plans in place and crews and materials at the ready, utilities located near the Gulf of Mexico had to wait until the brunt of Hurricane Ike had passed before springing into action.

With Storm Plans in Place and Crews and Materials at the Ready, utilities located near the Gulf of Mexico had to wait until the brunt of Hurricane Ike had passed before springing into action. Most of the population also was hunkered down, as elected officials put it, but by 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 13, the utilities had crews in the field assessing damage and restoring power.

Mike Maxwell, CenterPoint Energy's senior service consultant for the Galveston, Texas, service center, provided this detail at ground zero: "The first outages occurred a little before 4 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 12, as winds and rain picked up on Galveston Island. As the hurricane got closer, flooding increased and the power outages became more numerous until the entire island was out."

Doug White, CenterPoint Energy's emergency operating plan coordinator, explained, "CenterPoint pulled the trigger on Thursday [Sept. 11] to get mutual-assistance crews heading to Houston. Five days prior to Ike making landfall, we started making preparations, and two days later, activated our emergency operating plan."

Waiting until the storm hit was not an option. "Setting up the infrastructure is the key to success," White said. "At CenterPoint Energy, storm preparation is a year-round job with simulations and drills of storm-related scenarios."

Once the storm moved out of the area, roughly 12,000 line mechanics, tree trimmers and other skilled professionals began arriving in Houston, Texas, to rebuild CenterPoint Energy's electric distribution system. These mutual-assistance workers represented more than 70 companies from 30 states and Canada, along with approximately 3300 CenterPoint employees who were committed to the restoration effort.

Initially, CenterPoint Energy established four staging areas around the region to speed the deployment of these power line workers to the job site each day. The number of staging areas grew to 11 as the restoration effort took shape. These staging areas provided a base of operations near the work. Line and tree-trimming crews were provided with security, hot meals, showers, fuel for their vehicles (gas/diesel), maps to work sites and a well-stocked line of supplies. No one part of the effort was more important than any other, but the crews on the front lines needed the supply chain and support personnel to keep moving forward.


"During hurricane season, CenterPoint Energy stocks enough hardware, poles, conductor, transformers and other materials needed to supply our forces and incoming crews until the materials ordered from manufacturers begin to arrive," noted Kenny Mercado, CenterPoint Energy's division senior vice president of electric operations. "Another key element in being prepared is having alliances with manufacturers and suppliers. CenterPoint partners with Thomas & Betts for transmission structures, Southwire for conductor, Central Maloney for distribution transformers and Thomasson Lumber Co. for wood poles. These manufacturers and many others kept the material flowing."

Southwire reported that its first truckload of conductor left the plant on Sept. 11, two days prior to Ike's landfall. The company continued shipping conductor daily until the end of September. In that time, Southwire shipped 8,856,291 ft of conductor.

A massive CenterPoint staging area was set up at the Sam Houston Race Park, located in northern Houston. Scott Doyle, a CenterPoint Energy site manager, commented about the massive deployment: "Approximately 1000 line workers and 2000 tree trimmers came to Sam Houston every morning in roughly 30 buses. In addition, a couple of hundred CenterPoint Energy employees were assigned to the staging area to mutual-assistance crews."


CenterPoint Energy has an alliance with Thomas & Betts to supply steel structures. But fortunately, the steel structures in the CenterPoint bulk transmission system sustained essentially no damage, enabling Thomas & Betts to focus its efforts on other regions of the Gulf.

Steve Shephard, plant manager for Thomas & Betts' Houston facility, knows how important alliances can be. But key alliances are also formed between manufacturers and their suppliers. Shephard's facility was manufacturing 500-kV tubular structures for Entergy and miscellaneous items for CenterPoint Energy when Ike knocked out power to the steel-pole facility. One of its alliance partners, SSAB, stepped in and donated 1000 gallons of diesel to fuel an emergency generator. SSAB also heard about the plight of one of Shephard's employees whose home was without power. On family member has serious heart problems and was hooked up to medical devices, so SSAB loaned the family a portable generator that allowed them to remain at home. Alliances are key to business, but they are more than that. Alliances are also about developing and maintaining relationships.

One supplier, Hubbell Power Systems, celebrated the 10th anniversary of its distribution center, and then found itself immersed in the massive restoration efforts by dispatching from this center when Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike battered the coastal United Sates. Gustav slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi. Less than a week later, Hanna hit the Eastern Seaboard. Not quite a week later, Ike plowed into Texas and Louisiana. This really challenged the supply chain. Hubbell estimates that it shipped almost 2.5 million connectors, fittings and hardware, roughly 195,000 cutouts and fuse links, about 78,000 insulators and arresters, more than 33,000 anchors, fiberglass construction products and overhead switches, and nearly 10,000 tools to the storm-ravaged areas.

Another major supplier, S&C Electric shipped an additional 23,000 cutouts and 228,000 fuse links to utilities impacted by Ike. To meet the need, S&C ramped up assembly in links from two lines to four lines and opened additional cutout assembly areas. Factory workers pitched in, too, going to 11.5-hour shifts plus Saturdays and Sundays for more than a month.

Some crews came directly to Texas from working Hurricane Gustav. Henkels & McCoy crews headed out on Aug. 31 in response to Gustav. They sent more than 200 employees and 190 pieces of equipment to storm-damaged areas. Before they headed home near the end of September, they had worked with six different utilities in seven states. They slept in church camps and state parks in the Canton, Mississippi, area. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the only accommodations were box trailers with bunks three high running along the walls of the trailer. In New Caney, Texas, they slept in their trucks or tents. They replaced large numbers of broken poles and crossarms and damaged transformers. They repaired or replaced mile after mile of distribution circuits.

Other crews were local. Duke Austin, president of Houston Pole Line, a Quanta company, said that 1000 workers are headquartered in the area to serve Texas utilities, including alliance partner CenterPoint. When Gustav and Ike hit, Quanta sent in an additional 2000 line workers at the height of the rebuild. "Our Texas team acted as a go-between to assist incoming crews to get up to speed with local utility work practices," Austin said.


Entergy had the misfortune of being the only major utility to take back-to-back hits by Gustav, which affected 964,000 Entergy customers, and Ike, which affected 705,000 Entergy customers. At the height of the Ike devastation, 238 transmission lines were out of service along with 383 substations. More than 10,300 distribution poles were damaged or destroyed. Thomas & Betts reports that three of its four manufacturing facilities worked 24/7 to supply Entergy with 30 500-kV steel tubular structures and hardware required to replace or repair lattice towers destroyed or damaged by Ike. Entergy was able to get special highway permits to allow oversized loads to be on the highway after sunset. Thomas & Betts provided two-driver teams for each rig to keep the trucks moving nonstop with their critical loads.

Entergy reported a near-miss with part of its line-truck fleet when 500 line trucks stationed in the seaport community of Port Fourchon, Louisiana, were threatened by flooding. A massive evacuation effort took place just hours before Ike's landfall. Entergy sent 11 bus loads of drivers from New Orleans through the flooded streets of Port Fourchon to rescue the trucks. With water rising, the drivers took the fleet north to safety. Company officials estimate that the employees saved about $100 million worth of equipment. They also pointed out that this equipment was badly needed to restore the electric system after the hurricane passed.


Outside the storm-surge zone, most substations impacted by Ike were brought back quickly as the transmission circuits feeding them were restored, but the distribution feeders coming out of them were another story. Just following a feeder was a chore. Roads had to be cleared of debris, trees, limbs, utility poles and conductors. Once the roads were cleared and the damage identified, it was time to rebuild. First, the feeder was isolated. The grounding crew moved into the work space, grounding both sides of the work area (boxed) by installing ground cables, which had become in short supply. Tree trimmers made quick work clearing the way. They removed any trees blocking access or limbs on the line. The linemen quickly rebuilt the downed sections and moved on to the next portion.

Grounding crews, tree-trimming crews and line crews also followed the laterals, which in many cases were a worse tangle of trees and wire than the feeders had been. The back-lot lines were a maze of trees, shrubbery and debris wrapped around the conductor. It seemed that just about every yard had some form of downed trees or limbs in the conductor. Many had the service drops pulled from the house. Crews took precautions and identified which lines were energized. When a line was proved to be de-energized, crews grounded feeders and laterals, so they could later be brought back to life.


When the restoration effort moves to the house-to-house phase, linemen are often greeted by appreciative customers who are thrilled to see crews working their streets and subdivisions. In an area that was yet to receive power in Pasadena, Texas, a UtiliCon line crew was working a residential street. The crew was taking off grounds to a tap line after tree trimmers had finished removing overhead branches and limbs from the line. UtiliCon lineman Michael Daniel closed in the cutout. While the team was cleaning up and retracting their outriggers, a lady from the local church, Sandra Schaeffer, showed up with bags of peanut butter cookies and Capri Sun drinks to hand out to the linemen, stating, "The ladies from our church baked these cookies, and we wanted to thank the Ike workers we can find for their hard work."

There were many stories like this emerging from the field. More than one crew foreman shared a story of almost having a neighborhood restored, but it was past quitting time and getting dark. The people in the houses never yelled or threatened. They just stood there watching the workers. It really tugged at the linemen's hearts, and they stayed until the repair was completed. They worked from before dawn until after dusk, and were back up and ready to go at 5 a.m. the next day.


"Welcome to ground zero!" said a grinning Paul Marx, a CenterPoint Energy troubleman and self-proclaimed "ground ape," as a line crew pulled up chairs for breakfast. Galveston had taken a direct hit from the hurricane with nonstop wind, rain and finally a storm surge that flooded everything in sight. Marx described the sound as "a runaway freight train for eight or more hours." The damage to Galveston Island was extensive. CenterPoint Energy set up a staging area at Moody Gardens on Galveston Island where a hot breakfast was served to arriving crews. This staging area provided all the materials and facilities required to support the restoration crews assigned to the island. But in the first week after Ike had hit, the island was still evacuated as there was no water, sewer, electricity or any public service infrastructure that would normally define a city the size of Galveston, a population of approximately 60,000.

This situation is quite expected for storm responders and one reason why Georgia Power brought its storm team to the Texas Gulf Coast. Georgia Power had brought 700 linemen along with engineers, support personnel and security specialists. Traveling with Georgia Power were contractors like Pike Electric and Brysan Utility. They were assigned to rebuild CenterPoint Energy's severely damaged distribution system on the island. Taking over a hotel on the beach front, Georgia Power crews connected their generators to the hotel's circuit-breaker panel and powered up the facility. They had beds and lights, but no air conditioning. Although Georgia Power didn't have to worry about accommodations, the crews still had their work cut out for them.

On the west end of Galveston, Georgia Power line trucks were lined up for a half-mile, with linemen pulling the downed distribution line out of the canal, replacing broken poles, straightening the good poles and reattaching the conductor. Personnel from Georgia Power reported that a typical day was spent straightening and setting about a hundred poles. They replaced the broken poles, reattached the hardware they could and hung conductor.

Georgia Power transmission line design engineer Graham Smith provided these statistics: "In a day and a half, we replaced nine transmission poles and straightened 157, and we replaced 20 distribution poles and straightened 98."

Because the Georgia Power transmission crews had the big equipment, they focused on the poles and left the conductor and insulator work to distribution crews coming behind them.

In one telling incident, distribution circuits were located on both sides of one bridge between islands on Galveston. The side with all-wood poles had broken poles and downed conductor, but the side with a midspan concrete pole from Valmont-Newmark was still standing. In fact, none of the concrete poles on Galveston Island had fallen down.

In the storm command center, David McClanahan, president and CEO of CenterPoint Energy, and his senior executive staff were discussing the storm damage, the concern for the customers without power and the efforts of the restoration teams. Kenney Mercado, division senior vice president of electric operations for CenterPoint Energy, explained, "It is a big morale builder for our customers, our employees and our mutual-assistance partners being able to say that the outage count was below a million customers."

Keep in mind that more than 2.1 million customers were initially without electricity, so reaching the "less than a million" point was a huge milestone for everyone involved.

As Mercado said, "At CenterPoint Energy, everyone knew what is expected and pitched in. They don't work in their normal job areas; they changed hats. Meter readers pumped fuel for the trucks, and office staff manned the serving lines to feed the field crews. A regulatory attorney went to work loading trucks. Over 20 retirees came in as soon as travel was safe and asked where they were needed, and they were put to work immediately. In a situation like this one, there was no substitute for being there. It was one of those defining moments."

Over at the distribution operations center, Cornelius Fisher, Jr., a CenterPoint Energy operations supervisor, was charged with dispatching resources. He and his cohorts were busy working out the details required to allocate assignments for 12 service areas. "We had to determine the severity of the damage," Fisher explained. "If we could restore power to thousands of customers by clearing one faulted span, we did it. If it was going to take four or five days to rebuild a lateral feeding 100 customers or less, we noted the condition, assigned a priority and moved on to the next problem. We worked to get most customers restored for the least amount of resources committed."

Rhonda Welch, director of the Distribution Control Center, expounded: "It's been 25 years since CenterPoint Energy's EOP had been tested with an actual direct hit from a hurricane. That happened in 1983 when Hurricane Alicia hit Houston/Galveston." But CenterPoint Energy had kept its emergency operation plan current, valid and ready to implement, by performing mock hurricanes and computer simulations.

As the work moved from the operations center to the field, CenterPoint assigned company personnel to act as liaisons to the line crew field foremen. Several line crews from Harlan Electric, a subsidiary of MYR Group, were assigned to rebuild and energize feeder lines in Pasadena, Texas. The crews were composed of linemen from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. Lineman Scott Uland and general foreman Barry Shoemaker got out their one-line diagrams and reviewed the day's work. They were working the distribution circuit off Homestead Road in Houston. Uland then got the go-ahead to close a cutout to bring the neighborhood back to life. Shoemaker called in to his CenterPoint coordinator with an update so the company could accurately identify the number of customers with restored service.


Safety was paramount to line crews and tree trimmers alike. Senior regional safety specialist Johnny Wilson spent three weeks with Davey Tree crews working Texas. His safety team members spent their days visiting crews. Stated Wilson, "If we find a potentially hazardous situation, we may stay several hours in one location, but we can see as many as 20 to 30 crews a day."

But there are more than electrical hazards waiting to snag the unwary. Davey crews were suffering discomfort from biting bugs, or chiggers. John Sims and Will Hamilton of Davey Tree stopped at the local Walmart to get a salve developed particularly for chiggers to put on bites on their ankles and get some relief, and then headed out to tackle more trees. Coming from California, these workers were getting a field lesson on the crawling and flying insects of the Gulf Coast.

Each morning crews loaded up their trucks. Reels of overhead wire from Southwire were stacked for easy loading. Central Maloney distribution transformers stood in rows. Bins full of A.B. Chance and S&C Electric fuses, formed wire products from Preformed Line Products and earth anchors lined the aisles. Stacks of Ohio Brass insulators were piled high. Pallets of Hubbell cable accessories filled row after row. Most line trucks were fueled each evening from a mobile tanker, but a stop was also available for refueling.

Often, tree-trimming crews and line crews work in tandem. Such was the case with Asplundh tree-trimming crews and Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) line crews working in an area of Tomball, Texas, that had been very hard hit by downed trees. Asplundh tree-trimming crews were working their way down main feeders, cutting away limbs that had fallen on power lines, restoring clearances and dragging off debris, while KCP&L crews replaced poles, hung transformers and lifted downed lines.

Asplundh tree trimmer Romando Carbohol was removing a huge limb that had cracked and fallen on the line and was now supported by that same line. With surgical precision, Carbohol cut off branches until only a foot or so of the limb was pressing on the line. Then he made a cut down, another cut up and the line was clear. At the same time, three or four spans back, KCP&L linemen Scott Night and Randy Scott were working to splice a conductor and tie it back to a pole top pin insulator using conductor ties from Preformed. They then repeated the process for two more downed conductor and the downed ground wire.

On the personal side, Asplundh foreman Adrian Genesta shared a touching moment when a lady and her child came up to the crew members. The daughter handed each man a homemade thank-you card. With his hand to his heart, Genesta said, "This made this whole experience worthwhile."

Dave Searcy, a supervisor with Pike, speaks for us all when he said, "My family asks why I couldn't find a safer job, but I tell them I want to do work I enjoy for a company I respect." As for working Hurricane Ike, Searcy said simply, "It's not about the money, it's about making a difference, and I am needed here."

The power industry gets in one's blood, and whether we are in the front lines or supporting those on the front line, utility workers couldn't imagine doing anything else when duty and service calls.


Hurricane Ike caused a great deal of suffering when it slammed into the Texas coastline. Many responders focused on the personal needs of those affected. While the employees of Southwire kept three plants shipping conductor around the clock to the hurricane-ravaged area, they also found time to take part in Project GIFT, Southwire's community outreach group that is "Giving Inspiration for Tomorrow."

The Project GIFT team partnered with Carroll EMC, Gradick Communications and Tanner Health Systems to host a five-day hurricane disaster-relief drive at an employee resource center in September. In the process, enough supplies — including paper goods, cleaning supplies, individually wrapped snack foods, blankets, beverages, nonperishable food items, coolers and ice chests — were donated, filling two 18 wheelers.

Working with CenterPoint Energy, Southwire identified two small towns, Bacliff and San Leon, about 20 miles north of Galveston that were extremely hard hit by Ike. "This is what Southwire and Project GIFT are all about, giving back to our customers like CenterPoint and giving back to the community," said Jason Pollard, Southwire's human resources manager. "Together, we were able to provide much-needed relief to people in Bacliff and San Leon. We have strengthened relationships to help people in need across the country."

A team of 15 Southwire employees accompanied the two tractor-trailers to the disaster area to distribute the relief supplies. One big rig went to Bacliff and the other went to San Leon. CenterPoint Energy employee and Bacliff resident Deborah Sanders helped coordinate the disaster relief effort. "Most of the folks didn't evacuate this area," Sanders said of Bacliff and San Leon. "With it being a Category 2, we thought we could survive it without a big problem. But it's the surge from the bay coming in that's been the big battle." The residents remain hopeful they can rebuild and move on with their lives. The contributions from Project GIFT helped Bacliff and San Leon residents move one step toward the road to recovery.

Editor's note: A video of this effort can be viewed at www.southwire.com/sustainability/video.html.

About the Author

Gene Wolf

Gene Wolf has been designing and building substations and other high technology facilities for over 32 years. He received his BSEE from Wichita State University. He received his MSEE from New Mexico State University. He is a registered professional engineer in the states of California and New Mexico. He started his career as a substation engineer for Kansas Gas and Electric, retired as the Principal Engineer of Stations for Public Service Company of New Mexico recently, and founded Lone Wolf Engineering, LLC an engineering consulting company.  

Gene is widely recognized as a technical leader in the electric power industry. Gene is a fellow of the IEEE. He is the former Chairman of the IEEE PES T&D Committee. He has held the position of the Chairman of the HVDC & FACTS Subcommittee and membership in many T&D working groups. Gene is also active in renewable energy. He sponsored the formation of the “Integration of Renewable Energy into the Transmission & Distribution Grids” subcommittee and the “Intelligent Grid Transmission and Distribution” subcommittee within the Transmission and Distribution committee.

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