Updated: Oct. 18, 11:45 a.m. ET
Electric cooperative line crews and contractors continue to make progress restoring electricity to communities battered by Hurricane Michael more than a week ago. While numbers of overall outages continue to decline and more co-ops are declaring power restoration complete, work in some areas remains slow or has been delayed due to the extent of damage and the pace of debris removal.
What Co-ops Are Facing
Officials at Graceville, Florida-based West Florida Electric Cooperative wrote on the co-op’s Facebook page that they “now have nearly 1,000 linemen working in our area—that is one lineman for every 28 meters.” The co-op’s telephone service has been out since Michael struck its service territory Oct. 10, and since then WFEC has been regularly using social media to help keep its members informed about restoration.
In a Wednesday evening news release, WFEC said that “approximately 80 percent of the members served by West Florida Electric in Holmes County have been restored” and that it was “also able to restore power to around 100 members in Calhoun County.”
At WFEC and other co-ops that suffered some of the most catastrophic system damage, mutual aid personnel now working across their service territories are adding both skill and muscle to the big jobs of rebuilding entire sections of local power grids.
“Our crews made more progress Wednesday as the storm assistance reached a week,” said Jim McCarty, editor of Rural Missouri magazine, the publication of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives.
Twenty-three of Missouri’s electric cooperatives have 123 lineworkers, mechanics and other operations specialists working in Quincy, Florida-based Talquin Electric Cooperative’s service territory, where much of the work that’s paid off in larger numbers of members getting their power back is already complete. Crews are now pushing into less developed areas where many lines that run through muddy easements and access ways have been clogged since the storm.
“Currently, outage numbers for Talquin Electric Cooperative stand at 10,983, down from a high of 51,000 after the hurricane,” said McCarty. “Progress is being slowed by numerous downed trees and broken poles. The work has entered the phase where much effort is required to restore service to a handful of people.”
About 44,000 members of Florida’s electric cooperatives were still without service as of Wednesday evening, but that’s down from 200,000 within hours of Michael’s initial landfall. The Category 4 hurricane was the strongest storm ever to hit the Florida Panhandle, according to National Weather Service records. Electric co-ops in six states accounted for about 375,000 of the nearly 2 million meters electric utilities reported out of service as a result of storm-related damage.
Work is also continuing in Georgia, where distribution poles and wooden poles supporting 46-kilovolt transmission lines were knocked down, broken off and stripped of their cross-arms by hurricane-force winds of up to 129 mph as Michael plowed northeast through the state Oct. 11.
“It took years to construct the electric transmission and distribution system in rural Southwest Georgia, but Hurricane Michael destroyed much of it in a few hours,” Terri Statham, media relations manager for Georgia EMC, said early Thursday.
“EMC crews, many working up to 18-hour shifts, are making progress in some of the most rural parts of their systems, but there are thousands of broken poles and hundreds of miles of line on the ground.”
About 23,000 electric co-op members in Georgia communities are still waiting for service to be restored, but that’s down from 210,000 in the state in the immediate aftermath of Michael’s onslaught.
“Progress is moving slowly while rebuilding miles of power lines and replacing thousands of power poles, each of which may provide service to a small pocket of customers,” said Statham.
In Virginia, storm restoration is all but complete, with fewer than 250 remaining outages Thursday, primarily in the service territories of two of the state’s distribution co-ops.
“Despite massive damage and dangerous conditions, [most] members have been restored from the initial 40,000 impacted,” said Lauren Irby, a communications specialist with Crewe, Virginia-based Southside Electric Cooperative, where work is expected to conclude by late Thursday. “Nearly 235 SEC, mutual aid and contract personnel are actively working in the field. This number includes additional crews that were recently released from restoring power in other regions impacted by this historic storm event.”
People and Parts: The Co-op Difference
The thousands of co-op lineworkers and contract personnel who’ve been involved in restoration work in six states since Michael hit have been backed up by local co-op operations and support staff who’ve prepared and delivered meals, kept sleeping and boarding quarters running smoothly, and arranged for laundry service for visiting crews.
More than 100 line technicians from Arkansas are now working in the Southeast. Crews from six of the state’s distribution co-ops are in Georgia, while construction and maintenance crews from Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc. are working in Florida out of a staging area set up at Tyndall Air Force Base, 12 miles east of Panama City.
Entire sections of the energy grid need to be rebuilt in some communities, and many of the consumers still without power may not be able to be reconnected due to the severe damage to their homes and businesses.
“This was a historic storm, and we continue to see a historic response from the crews who are working around-the-clock to restore power,” said Duane Highley, president and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.
Highley, representing NRECA’s member co-ops, co-chairs the Electric Security Coordinating Council, a group of industry and government officials committed to facilitating response efforts to major regional electric reliability incidents, including hurricanes.
“Never before have so many workers been mobilized so quickly from across our industry,” said Highley. “Workers continue to be redeployed to the hardest hit areas where, in many cases, the energy grid is being completely rebuilt.”
There’ve also been nonstop deliveries of poles, hardware and power grid components to warehouses, pole yards and temporary staging areas within or near damaged areas.
Besides poles and wires, transformers—vital to the safe operation of modern power grids—have been needed in every state ravaged by high winds and storm surge from not only Michael but also from Hurricane Florence, which struck many of the same areas in September.
ERMCO, a Dyersburg, Tennessee-based cooperative that manufactures and distributes transformers for the utility industry, is now operating around the clock to meet the demand for new transformers essential to rebuilding the power grid.
“Twelve-hundred ERMCO team members are working seven days a week and long shifts fulfilling emergency orders from our co-op utility partners,” said Bill Reffert, president and CEO of ERMCO. “We have already shipped thousands of transformers into the areas impacted by both Florence and now Michael, and have been receiving orders for rush shipments into Alabama, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.”
ERMCO, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., has single-phase and three-phase manufacturing facilities in Dyersburg and a transformer components manufacturing plant in Greenville, Tennessee, It has not only been meeting demand for its co-op customers, it’s also shipping some of its products to municipal and investor-owned utilities working to restore power across the region.
“ERMCO works to always meet the needs of our customers, but especially in times of need such as power restoration efforts after natural disasters,” Reffert said. “Our team has been producing additional transformers to meet orders and shipping many truckloads of products to areas impacted by Hurricane Michael.”
The manufacturing and supply cooperative has been shipping both pole mounted and pad mounted transformers to replace damaged units as an assurance that local needs do not outpace available inventories as restoration continues.
Member Patience Paying Off
Wewahitchka, Florida-based Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative has restored service to more than 3,600 of its members, getting power back to about 17 percent of its meters. Restoration is completed in three counties served by the co-op. More than 83 percent of the meters in Florida’s Bay County have service, while in Washington County, restoration totals have topped 37 percent.
WFEC told members in a Facebook post that no restoration work has been completed in Walton County, although crews are working across the co-op’s service territory.
In addition to Gulf Coast EC’s 80 employees, more than 700 co-op mutual aid volunteers and contractors are now working in its service territory, officials said late Wednesday.
While frustrations may be running high for some co-op members who’ve now been without electricity for a week, many are actively seeking out resting crews with offers of food, beverages and heartfelt thanks. Others are turning to social media to express praise for those putting in the time restoring service.
Butler, Missouri-based Osage Valley Electric received a message from a happy Talquin Electric member whose power was restored by one of its crews.
“I just wanted to take a moment to express my gratitude for your team that is here in Tallahassee,” said Jenna Hall, a Talquin EC member. “The first lineman that I spoke with was incredibly awesome! He took a moment to listen and reassure me that they were there to help my family get our power restored.”
Crews in the field are working as quickly as possible but understand that communicating with local co-op members reinforces their overall support among people still waiting for service.
“We have been hit by a monstrous storm that took everything from some and a few things from others. I too am without power, cell service and landline at my home. Power lines down all over our field,” wrote Gail Hayes Sloat, a Talquin EC member on the Quincy Florida-based co-op’s Facebook page.
Sloat, whose late brother was a lineworker, expressed appreciation for the risks associated with the work—dangers lineworkers face regularly on the job.
“One wrong move, one wrong switch flipped could mean the difference between life and death of a lineman,” wrote Sloat. “Please, I want power just as much as everyone too but I want our linemen safe and power to those with medical needs first.”
Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.
• Social Media Roundup: See How Co-ops Are Responding 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