A Utility Worker’s View of Hurricane Irma

Although Hurricane Irma hit three weeks ago, there’s no time to blog when you’re working to get the lights back on. What follows is my impressions of Hurricane Irma over the duration of power restoration, taken from notes and memory.

Before the Storm

We spent days preparing for the storm, going over different scenarios and getting material in place. Locally, there was a strange mixture of near panic over some issues, including wild rumors, and a sort of flippancy. It’s been years that we’ve faced something like this, and I think people just forget. Some bought water, as we did, but when I bought ice the day before, there was plenty. Some bought a bag or two, but I went on the assumption that electricity would be out for the days. I told my wife that I may have just bought ice water, but it would be good to have on hand.

People did buy bottled water and canned food that didn’t require refrigeration or cooking. What they chose to buy was interesting and showed changing tastes.

I tied down what I could, and removed everything loose or what could break in high winds. Oddly, many people didn’t. We’ve had these storms before, but it’s been a long time.

We checked with my parents, and did what we could there. They’ve been through worse than this. That’s going to come as a shock to a certain crowd who thinks weather began in their lifetime, but it’s true. That was a storm of a different type, an ice storm, but power was out over a week, and was a major reason my father didn’t fill in the traditional wells we had on the farm. It’s also why we kept an alternate form of heat on standby. They are the ones who taught me major storm prep, such as catching up water.

They wanted to stay at their home. My wife’s mother decided to stay with us the night Irma was to hit, which we thought was a good idea. We’re nowhere near any place that would see a storm surge, but you never know what these things will do.

Part of my job is to track these things. Thanks to modern weather products, I don’t have to do as much as I did thirty years ago, and what we have access to now is more accurate. I’m not a meteorologist, and all I can do is go over the forecasts and guesstimate wind speed and such. Now, you can get all this on forecast sites such as www.nhc.noaa.gov, Intellicast, Weather Underground, and www.weather.gov. You have to exercise caution because you can get the wrong idea about things such as storm track and size of damage. Hurricanes are so large that a small change in track won’t necessarily have a huge effect on damage, and Irma was a huge storm.

After a point, you’ve done all you can do, and then it’s waiting to see what will happen.

 

Day One

The wind got up as predicted. What surprised us was how the rain moved in early and it was windy and cold. The meteorologists said this was from how the wind shear was interacting with Irma; it was causing some elongation, and dry air was colliding with moist, creating evaporative cooling. Usually these tropical systems are warm and muggy.

The winds picked up as predicted, blowing pretty well by the time I went in to work. It struck me that I was driving in winds that some emergency director on TV said made it impossible to keep a vehicle in its lane. But we drive in pretty bad weather. Didn’t have to dodge trees and debris on the way in, which was good. Those would come later.

Every storm has its own personality. This one hit us harder than you would expect. By then, it was supposed to be a tropical storm, but it outdid some full fledged hurricanes that’s come through.

It soon became clear it was too dangerous to work. For the first time in company history, we had to hunker down a few hours until the worst was over. Nor were we the only utility who had to do so. We’ve worked in hurricanes that have come through, but we couldn’t work in Irma.

The damage is some of the worst I’ve seen over a wide area. We’ve had worse local damage before, like several spans of line that were in the path of a tornado and were just gone, and I’ve seen what was left of a single wide mobile home wrapped around a power line. I’ve never seen so many downed lines, and damaged poles and hardware. We saw damage with Irma usually associated with more powerful storms.

We even had damage to our office, when an antenna (not ours) fell on the building. Ended up puncturing the roof. All we could do then was put trash cans under the leaks.

We were able to return to power restoration before mid afternoon. There was just so much of it.

One eerie thing was the silence on the radio. We could pick up only a couple of stations. Only one was local, but like most it’s mostly automated, which makes it useless in an emergency like this. Maybe we should point that out when they come up for license renewal and the FCC asks for public comments.

As expected, cell service was practically nonexistent. We’ve run into this before, even in the era of 5 Watt bag phones. These days, cell phones are digital and broadcast from about 0.75 to 1.00 Watts, and that doesn’t help matters when local service is out. At the best of times, local service here is optimistic theory, and today wasn’t the best of times.

This by, the way, is a good argument for satellite GPS over a phone app. Those phone apps seem to get position from cell towers. The problem with that is if you have no signals from cell towers, you can’t get your location that way. But satellite GPS still works – unless a solar flare takes out the satellites.

A some point, when you’re faced with all the outages and all the damage, you get a sense of despair. But despair doesn’t get the lights back on, so you work.

 

Day Two

Today, somewhere between 60% and 70% of our customers are still without power. If I remember correctly, at one point during the Storm of the Century, back in March of 1993, nearly 90% of our customers lost power. But there was a subtle difference in damage; though more had lost power, there was less damage to infrastructure. We had a high number of large trees down with Irma. Usually, by now, we have the main lines, sometimes known as feeders, back on. Not this time. Essentially we’re rebuilding the power lines from the substations on out.

Day Two is when customers start getting irritable. Most don’t see the main lines torn down, or realize they wouldn’t have lights if we got their lines up, because the main line that feeds them is still out. In some cases they haven’t seen our trucks, and naturally wonder what we’re doing.

Unfortunately, in something like this we don’t have enough crews to go around. Occasionally we’ve had to call for help, but nothing like this. All local electric utilities are just as heavily damaged, so, for the first time, we had crews coming in from out of state. That was in addition to some contractors. But aside from contractors, today help was in transit. They wouldn’t make an impact until tomorrow.

We still got a lot of lights back on, more than I thought we would. Improving weather made a difference.

Something else customers don’t realize is that this affects us, too. Most of our families are without electricity. I was one of the lucky ones, with power out only about nine hours. My parents weren’t, nor was my mother-in-law.

Seeing about loved ones is another issue. My parents, who taught me how to prepare for a storm, seem to have underprepared for this one. My wife cooked them a hot supper, and we gave them most of our ice (we’d already given my mother-in-law some), as well as water and some of our emergency lights. That helps, but it’s still hard to see our loved ones without power.

Just because someone knows us, or is our kin, doesn’t mean their lights come one any quicker. That’s something else our customers don’t always understand. It doesn’t matter who someone is; if they’re served by a single line (what we call a tap) that runs miles from the main line, and that main line is torn down in several places, they aren’t going to get their lights back on before we fix the main line.

By night most of the radio stations were back on the air, and cell service was much improved. That was a good sign. Looking forward to checking the Automated Meter Reading system in the morning to see how many are still out.

Depending on your Automated Meter Reading system, or AMR, you can “ping” meters to see if they’re active. However, with something this large it can tie up the system. The electrical engineer has been doing that periodically. I can get an idea, though, by looking at what’s called failed meter reads. That tells me how many aren’t communicating with the office. That works fine to get a daily idea of what meters are out.

A contractor repaired the office roof and ceiling damage, and did a pretty good job of it, too. That was another, small, bright spot.

Note: I later saw where the New York Times claimed utilities first had to do an assessment. That’s a bit of a misnomer. We do assessment as we try to restore power. If a crew can get a line on, it does so. If our crews finds line after line wrapped up in trees, and damaged pole after damaged pole, it’s pretty clear what we’re facing. I don’t know of any utility that will twiddle its thumbs and not try to restore power from the very first outage.

This is really very simple. I wrote about this in Getting the Lights On. The problem is that while the concept of power restoration is simple, going about it takes a lot of effort.

 

Day Three

Today the cavalry has arrived, in the form of outside help. At the moment, we have more outside help than our own people. It was a beautiful sight, seeing them and our crews heading out to a main line that’s been torn down since Monday. They’ve got their work cut out for them, too; there’s terrible damage to that line, with several broken poles.

We didn’t get as many lights on yesterday as I thought. According to our AMR, a little over a third of our customers are still without power. That means several thousand who didn’t have electricity yesterday morning do now, but thousands more are still without power. Not good. If we can get several main lines back up, that will put a big dent in the outages.

As expected, customers are getting more irate. Since, in most cases, our own lights are out, or those of family members, we understand how they feel; we’re the ones restoring power, and even we are frustrated at the slow go. The difference is we see what a mess we’re dealing with, and they can’t.

Irate customers are part of working with the public. But it seems to have gotten worse as the years go by. I don’t know why, and am too tired to speculate. Our’s still aren’t as bad as in some places. At one utility years ago, some genius slashed tires on vehicles. But I see it getting worse.

We don’t have much leeway in what we can say to the customers. When they’re ranting, you can’t tell them exactly what you think. You have to put on your working face when dealing with the public.

Rumors are spreading. We had a reporter claim that she “had heard” it would be a week before we had power completely restored. That’s not been said, and now, with extra help, I’m uncharacteristically optimistic. To be honest, I don’t have a high opinion of reporters, but in all honesty, those I’ve met in the course of work had been accurate – so far. She did have a correct number of customers still without power. We’ll see where it goes.

Particularly heartbreaking are the call-backs customers had from our call center. Most on taps didn’t have power when their main lines came on, and some got the impression that we had forgotten about them. We hadn’t. Especially sad was an elderly woman who started crying when she had the call-back.

We always did call-backs, and in a big outage we’d always have those who’s electricity wasn’t restored. I think what’s different this time is the tremendous number of outages, and that means a lot of other issues are going to keep everyone from getting power when we turn on the main line. But until we do, in most cases we aren’t going to know about them.

What it comes down to is, if your utility does call-backs, and your power isn’t restored, then call the utility to tell them your electricity didn’t come back on. It’s why we’re here.

 

Day Four

Under twenty percent; that’s how many of our customers are still without power. I’m told more help is on the way. We’ll need it.

I don’t know how to convey just how bad the lines are damaged. We’re talking about tree after tree on the wires, with snapped wires, broken crossarms, shattered pole tops, and poles snapped in two. Mile after mile of it. A woman in her nineties told me she has never seen damage this extensive.

Once main lines are back up, outage restorations tend to slow. That’s because fewer people are on the taps – that’s the lines attached to the main lines – and restoring each tap doesn’t turn on as many lights as restoring the main line.

So far, this outage restoration is following that pattern. We’re still working on a main line from a substation, but now we’re starting to address secondary lines that pull off the main lines, and tertiary lines that pull off the secondary lines, and so on. But the number we’re getting on each hour has dropped because fewer live on those taps than the main line.

Usually you can break into smaller crews once the main lines are on in order to speed restoration. Maybe we still can, but with this type of damage it could be iffy.

This is where the extra assistance really helps. It’s sobering that even with all additional crews, we’re not getting into each other’s way yet.

It can also be dangerous. We’ve heard that someone from out of state, who was working for another utility, somehow was shocked while working to restore power. We call this a “contact.” as in making contact with a live wire. He’s been flown to a burn center, but that’s all we know.

 

Day Five

This afternoon, our outages fell below 10% of our customers. That’s a major victory. We also reached the point where we’re having crews near each other. The damage has been so widespread that this is the first time it’s happened. We were also finally seeing lights restored faster than new and/or repeat trouble calls.

Like every other electric utility in the area, we’ve gone though material like crazy. Today, a box of “sleeves,” a device used to splice power lines, ended up on a truck moments after it was unloaded.

Today took me to a different part of the system. It’s getting harder to see the damage as people are already clearing debris away. It’s either that, or it didn’t have as intense damage in that location as what I’ve seen elsewhere.

What I do know is that if someone didn’t see the things we have, they wouldn’t understand why their electricity was still out. It makes a big difference when you see mile after mile of damage and know firsthand the scope of the disaster.

I was told today that there were complaints on Facebook about how long it’s taking to restore power. I have a presence there, but don’t use it; had other things to do than to look at it; and can’t tell you much. I do marvel that someone without electricity can post to Facebook; such is life in the era of smart phones. The outcry I’ve heard is more from family and friends of utility workers, who understand that this job is in the top ten most dangerous in the US. One said, “They’re out there risking their lives,” and there’s truth to that. That’s why we have monthly safety meetings and procedures to learn and to follow. Even then, things happen, and nearly every safety meeting we hear of an incident that happened in the state.

That leads to dark humor, and we someone talk, partially in jest, of something being the difference between an open casket funeral and a closed casket funeral. It’s how we deal with it.

 

Day Six

When this all started, I had no idea we’d still have lights out this long after the storm. I’ve worked at a utility over three decades, and I’ve never seen it out this long. Our utility has to go back almost sixty years to find a disaster that had the lights out this many days.

The good news is that we’re clearly in what we used to call “the short rows,” a slang term meaning near the end. Everyone is tired.

Fatigue is something you have to watch. When you get tired you make mistakes, and the nature of this work isn’t very forgiving. Rudyard Kipling wrote of “They finger death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires” in his poem The Sons of Martha, and that’s a pretty apt description. There’s more than the danger of electricity involved. The chainsaws are getting a workout now, and they are not to be taken lightly. There’s also the simple act of driving, and pulling wire and things falling and even standing in the wrong place when the truck outriggers go down. You have to stay alert.

This includes the critters and creepy-crawlies. You often read of the nasties in places like Australia, but not much is said about those here in the US. In our area alone we have to deal with about six varieties of poisonous snakes; three or four kinds of poisonous spiders; several varieties of bees and wasps; large predators including alligators and bears; and your local dogs. Fortunately, our encounters are usually with dogs and insects and the occasional snake (one crew came across a rattlesnake while working). While we’ve come across alligators before, we’ve had no incidents. But we always keep our eyes peeled.

There’s a rumor that we had outside help because we sent some of our crews elsewhere to assist in power restoration. No true. All of our crews were right here, working to get the lights on, and were here before the first lights went out. No idea how that one started.

 

Day Seven

Finally! By dark, we had restored power to everyone who hasn’t had damage to their service entrance. That’s where the wires enter the home or business. There was quite a bit of this kind of damage, where we actually had to disconnect power so an electrician or carpenter or roofer could do repairs. This isn’t unusual, but the scope of the damage is. We’ll restore power to them when they call and tell us they’re ready.

This is the worst such outage any of us can remember. Frankly, we hope we never see the likes again. I’ve never been one in favor of underground power lines, but really, this has me thinking about that. The expense to go all underground would be staggering, but after something like this, you have to wonder.

 

Aftermath

It’s now been over three weeks since Irma and things are finally settling down. While we had power safely restored, there things that weren’t an immediate hazard that we left undone so that we could restore power. Such as broken poles where line clearance wasn’t an issue. In most of those cases, we cut out the top of the pole, and came back later and replaced it.

When you work in an electric utility, you get a habit of “riding the lines” wherever you go. That’s sort of looking at the power line out of the corner of your eye. You keep your attention on the road, of course, but you’re also noticing the power lines along the highway. The family gets amused at that, especially after a storm like this when you’ve been looking for damage.

Even though most of the debris are cleared away, if you know what to look for, you can still pick up where there was considerable damage to the lines. Those brand spanking new crossarms stand out. New sleeves look shiny when the sun hits them just right. New poles are easier to pick out, not just from the shade, but from the fresh dirt at the base.

In clearing away damage to personal property, I learned that a chainsaw may no longer been an optional tool. I’ve used a club ax (that’s a single bit ax) most of my life, and, while using one lately, I felt the years catching up with me. It was a bit sobering to realize that while I’ve heard plenty of chainsaws, mine is the only ax I’ve heard in use. More sobering is the realization that we don’t use axes to the same degree we once did at work. Times change.

There’s still fencing I need to repair, which I hope to finish this week, and some minor odds and ends, but it looks like the area has pretty much recovered from Irma.

Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, a tropical depression has formed and is forecast to head north. It’s supposed to make a hurricane by Sunday.

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