Co-op Crews Continue Power Restoration Efforts in Florida and Georgia

Missouri crews work to restore power for thousands of co-op members in Florida facing outages after Hurricane Michael. (Photo Courtesy Rural Missouri Magazine)

Updated: Oct. 23, 3:30 p.m. ET

Electric cooperatives are continuing to put in long hours in parts of Florida and Georgia to restore service to members who lost power when Hurricane Michael swept ashore earlier this month. For all of the affected co-ops, the mission remains getting electricity to all members who can safely receive service.

About 27,000 meters served by Florida electric cooperatives were still out of service Tuesday, and outage figures reported for Georgia co-ops totaled around 4,000.

Lots of Little Jobs

“A six-man crew worked all day with two bucket trucks and a digger truck to repair a span of line which had numerous trees on it,” officials from West Florida Electric Cooperative wrote in a message to members posted earlier this week on the co-op’s Facebook page. “All three spans of line were down in one stretch and it was also down in two other places. There was one broken pole and several that had to be straightened—a bucket had to be placed on each pole along the span to make repairs.”

About 54 percent of Graceville, Florida-based WFEC’s 28,317 meters were back in service early Tuesday—13 days after Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach in the coastal bend of the Florida Panhandle.  The Category 4 storm packed sustained winds of 155 mph as it came ashore, ultimately knocking out power to 2 million electric meters in six states, including about 375,000 members of electric cooperatives.

“All substations are now up and running at 100 percent capacity,” WFEC officials wrote in a message to members posted on Facebook early Tuesday.

WFEC is one of three Florida electric cooperatives that saw almost every meter on their systems taken down by Hurricane Michael as high winds and storm surges in excess of 13 feet washed ashore. Those co-ops also suffered complete disruptions of their local telephone service, website problems and near total failure of cellular telephone service across their service territories.

“Repairs are being made to make all communication systems fully operational,” Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative officials told their members in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

The Wewahitchka, Florida-based co-op has restored service to about 48 percent of its members, and about 10,700 members are still awaiting repairs.

“There are more than 1,100 crewmen working on the restoration effort,” wrote Gulf Coast EC officials. “Because all efforts are focused on power restoration, GCEC office lobbies are closed until further notice.”

The Help They Need

Crews from more than a dozen states, including some that initially suffered damage from Hurricane Michael, have had lineworkers, mechanics, vegetation management teams and other operations personnel in the region since even before the storm made landfall.

GCEC lineman Jason Curry’s home suffered extensive damage, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting in 16-hour days to restore members’ power. Jason’s wife, Brandi, even brought bags of supplies for all of those working on restoration efforts.

As work across Gulf Coast EC’s service territory continues, co-ops such as Wauchula, Florida-based Peace River Electric Cooperative sent in fresh crews Monday.

“In times of severe damage and loss, electric co-ops help electric co-ops restore power,” says Van Crawford, PRECO’s vice president of operations. “Working 16 or more hours a day takes a toll on our linemen, so PRECO will keep sending replacements until the job is done.”

About 3,200 members of Quincy, Florida-based Talquin Electric Cooperative were still without power Tuesday, down from 51,000 in the storm’s immediate aftermath. Member patience and gratitude have helped keep crews motivated throughout the grueling hours of hard work in muddy, gritty conditions found in debris-clogged rights-of-way.

“Thank you to all the linemens’ families from the bottom of my heart,” Talquin EC member Karen Gordon wrote on the co-op’s Facebook page. “Day 8 with no power but totally understand what your linemen have had to face in Gadsden County, FL. I don’t know how they are getting by working 16 hour days and well into the nights. God bless them!”

“We have shifted to the tedious work of repairing taps and individual outages,” Talquin EC officials said late Sunday. “Many of these taps involve downed wire, broken poles, and can be difficult to access with a bucket truck. In Gadsden and Liberty Counties, we have over 110 crews working around the clock.”

In 11 days of 16-hour shifts, the 500 personnel involved in Talquin EC’s restoration work have racked up 88,000 hours, so fresh crews are also being rotated in.

Co-op crews work to restore outages in Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. (Photo Courtesy Rural Missouri Magazine)
Co-op crews work to restore outages in Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. (Photo Courtesy Rural Missouri Magazine)

As some communities work their way to “near normal,” making sure that tired crews have lodging has not been without its challenges. One apprentice Talquin EC line technician, assigned to work as a guide and helper for a mutual aid crew from Marshfield, Missouri-based Webster Electric Cooperative, took a crew home with him this weekend.

“The Missouri linemen had to give up their hotel room due to a Florida State college football game in Tallahassee,” said Jim McCarty, editor of Rural Missouri magazine and a spokesman for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. “The apprentice just got married the Saturday before the storm hit. You can’t make this stuff up! The newlyweds just got power back on Wednesday and now they are hosting your crew! Southern hospitality!”

Hundreds of smaller restoration jobs are also continuing in Georgia, where about 4,000 co-op-served meters are still without power. Most of those outages are in the southwestern corner of the state, where tall trees, weakened by the remnants of two major hurricanes—Florence in September and Michael less than a month later—have left lowland areas wet and soggy. Trees supported by weakened root systems are toppling in soft ground, knocking out more lines in some areas where restoration work was completed days or hours earlier.

Overall outages on co-op lines in Georgia are a small fraction of the 210,000 members initially left without service in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Still, getting those last members restored is taking a lot of time and effort.

“The most impacted EMCs have an average density of 10 customers or less per mile, and their systems span hundreds of miles in rural counties,” said Terri Statham, manager of media relations for Georgia Electric Membership Corp., the statewide association headquartered in Tucker. “EMCs can make one repair and restore service to as few as three households compared with investor-owned utilities or municipal systems which can make one repair and restore service to 75 or more houses.”

Of six states initially reporting power outages as a result of Hurricane Michael, only Florida and Georgia still have communities awaiting service restoration. For co-ops that have completed the work and released mutual aid workers and contractors to return to their home communities, the tasks of tabulating losses, documenting damage and removing debris are just gearing up.

In Virginia, operations and accounting personnel from Southside Electric Cooperative is pulling together the numbers at their headquarters in Crewe.

The devastating event left more than 165 broken poles in its wake, said Brad Furr, Southside EC’s vice president of operations. At the peak of the storm, more than 40,000 SEC members lost power—approximately 70 percent of SEC’s system.

Michael had spent most of its hurricane strength and was officially downgraded to tropical storm status when it swept across Virginia on Oct. 11. A total of 21 co-ops and contractors from several states ultimately assisted Southside EC with power restoration.

“Following Tropical Storm Michael, power crews had to stop multiple times to cut trees from roadways as well as rerouting crews due to flooding and other hazardous road conditions while on the way to outage locations,” said Furr. “These extra steps add significant time and complexity to the overall restoration effort.”

Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.

Read More:

Social Media Roundup: See the Co-ops Response to the Storm
NRECA Supporting Electric Co-ops in the Path of Michael
Information Hub: Electric Co-ops and Michael
‘We Do a Job That Not Everybody Can Do’: A Q&A With Florida Mutual Aid Crewmembers