Copper Theft Slows Hurricane Restoration Work

Thousands of feet of copper feeder line taken, delaying return of power

SECO Energy's work restoring power after Hurricane Irma has been complicated by copper thieves. (Photo By: SECO Energy)
SECO Energy’s work restoring power after Hurricane Irma has been complicated by copper thieves. (Photo By: SECO Energy)

Even a hurricane won’t stop copper thieves, and their evil doings kept some folks in Florida without air conditioning and lights even longer after Hurricane Irma hit.

SECO Energy had more than 100,000 members without power after Irma lashed its Central Florida service territory with hurricane force winds. Restoring power was a massive undertaking, needlessly complicated when copper line was stolen from several feeders in different parts of Sumter County.

SECO officials said the thieves’ biggest haul was more than 4,700 feet of copper from one of its facilities. The other feeders were hit for 1,000 feet and 460 feet respectively. These were in older, more rural areas where copper wire was still in use.

Irma hit SECO’s service territory Sept. 10-11. The thefts, which the co-op believes occurred between Sept. 14 and 16, slowed restoration to about 50 members.

“This act is criminal in more ways than one. These members were already suffering without power after Hurricane Irma, and these copper crooks created additional hardships,” said SECO CEO Jim Duncan.

“My heart goes out to these communities, and I sincerely hope the thieves are apprehended, charged and convicted,” added Duncan, who said SECO is cooperating with local law enforcement.

Copper theft has long been a problem for co-ops and other utilities. With the metal trading at around $2.94 per pound on the COMEX, thieves can sell it to make quick money. But the utility is left with a bill that includes repairing damage, and that is often far larger than the cost of the stolen copper.

“Though the cost of the replacement line itself was about $3,000, that doesn’t include the labor and equipment needed to perform the replacement,” said Kathryn Gloria, SECO’s vice president of corporate communications and energy services.

“The greatest loss, however, is the needless additional minutes SECO’s members spent without power in Irma’s aftermath,” added Gloria.

“The residents in these areas had difficulty finding gas for their vehicles, generator fuel, water and food during the ordeal. Some experienced flooding, and others had home damage,” she said. “The last thing SECO wanted to tell them was that restoration was delayed by petty thieves.”

Gloria noted that SECO hasn’t had as big a problem with copper conductor line thefts as some other co-ops because there’s not a lot of copper line left on its system due to infrastructure upgrades over the years. She said theft of pole grounds is actually a more prevalent occurrence.

Michael W. Kahn is a staff writer at NRECA.