After a dawn-till-dusk day of helping to restore power at neighboring Victoria Electric Cooperative, Bryan Lightfoot and five of his line crew members from Bartlett Electric Cooperative stopped at a community restaurant for a bite to eat.
Easily identified by their co-op shirts, a waitress informed them that their meal was on the house, a thank-you to a team that pitched in to help bring nearly 23,000 of Victoria Electric’s meters out of darkness.
The gratitude on that Aug. 30 night didn’t end there, said Lightfoot, general manager and CEO of Bartlett. Patrons stopped by to offer their appreciation. When one woman said she wanted to pay for their next meal, the Bartlett crew politely explained that they couldn’t accept her money.
“She began to cry and wanted us to know how much it meant for us to leave our families to assist the people of Victoria,” Lightfoot recalled. “Ironically, this lady’s power had not been restored yet.”
People might lose their power. They might lose their possessions. But with the promise of electricity, they never lose hope.
“I can assure you that experience at this restaurant meant more to our men than any paycheck. They were visibly moved,” Lightfoot said. “As co-ops, we take care of each other, we take care of our members, and we take care of other co-ops’ members, as well.”
After a week of yeoman efforts in appalling conditions, electric cooperative crews restored power to about 90 percent of the 125,000 meters that lost service at some point after Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 on the Texas Gulf Coast.
It was a remarkable feat, considering Harvey surged from a tropical depression to a Category 4 hurricane in 44 hours on its way to becoming the most prolific rainmaker in U.S. history. Co-op leaders said that restoration demonstrated the resolution of mutual aid crews from across Texas and the DNA of the cooperative network.
“Before the storm ever hit, we had co-ops in inside the state and in other states volunteering and wanting to know how they could help to put systems back together so members could have power. It is part of the cooperative spirit,” said NRECA Texas Director Kerry Kelton, general manager and CEO of Mid-South Synergy in Navasota.
“Looking at the storm damage, I was thinking this will be an extremely long recovery—and it will be for some people. But when people have lights and they have power, now they can begin to rebuild a lot easier. We’re a sign of hope coming into the community,” Kelton said.
There’s no question that linemen understood what they represented to members pining for a return to normalcy.
On Aug. 26, 14 crew members from CoServ in Corinth lined up for tetanus shots before they set off for the Gulf Coast in a cavalcade of trucks and generators.
“It’s something special to come and work with all the other co-ops to get the power on,” said lineman Mitchell Bridges, who was working beyond CoServ’s territory for the first time. Bridges and co-workers from CoServ rolled out at 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 26, which happened to be his 22nd birthday; his uncle and father also are utility linemen who helped to restore electricity in parts of Texas.
“What we’re down there for is not just to put the lights on, but to help those people,” added Donnie Clary, CoServ president and CEO.
Improvisation was often the order of the day. With hotels and lodging jam-packed within a 100-mile radius, Nueces Electric Cooperative set up air mattresses and bedding in a conference room for linemen from Medina Electric Cooperative who, in turn, were helping San Patricio Electric Cooperative in Sinton get back online.
“It’s all about cooperatives helping cooperatives,” said Madeline Chalk, corporate communications specialist at Robstown-based Nueces Electric.
The restoration was far from over. Victoria Electric still had about 3,000 meters out as of Sept. 3. Crews were replacing and rebuilding lines, as well as checking on individual homes with blown transformers or fuses.
Jasper Newton had restored service to about 2,200 of 5,000 meters, and Sam Houston was down to 1,700 outages when the Entergy line failed Aug. 31. After Entergy finished repairs late on Sept. 1, the two-coops got most of their members back on the grid.
Not long after, though, a second toppled tree damaged an Entergy line and knocked out electricity to Sam Houston members in Tyler County and north Hardin County. The co-ops also were waiting out flooded roads and hazardous conditions before they could reach some isolated members still without power.
At Gonzales-based Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, home air-conditioning technicians continued to help members that could be reached during the storm. When they weren’t on the roads, they were washing uniforms and preparing food regardless of their typical function, as the co-op completed repairs that restored almost all of its 17,000 outages.
Next up: full restoration of GVEC.net, the internet service it provides to the community.
“Our linemen are now teaming with the .Net crews to aid in those restorations as well, which demonstrates the compelling story of not just neighbor helping neighbor, but the cooperative employee family supporting each other,” said GVEC General Manager and CEO Darren Schauer.
In areas where the lights were back on, co-ops started shifting their attention to rebuilding communities deluged by more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of south-central Texas.
In Mercedes, Magic Valley Electric Cooperative partnered with Habitat for Humanity of the Rio Grande Valley to collect bottled water, personal hygiene items, bug spray and other goods for distribution to Harvey victims in the Corpus Christi and Victoria areas.
Nueces Electric Cooperative dropped by The Ark Assessment Center & Emergency Shelter for Youth in Corpus Christi to deliver sandwich fixings for foster children displaced during the storm. Chalk said the co-op also is developing design ideas for a fundraiser that it hopes to announce next week.
“You can feel the compassion for everyone as our employees look for ways to help the community,” she said.
Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, Bastrop, took 200 cases of water to Victoria, with more deliveries to follow. With its crews still working in some damaged neighborhoods as of Sept. 1, Mid-South Synergy Energy delivered pallets of water to relief workers and homeowners.
It was a sign that co-op commitment to community lingers even after the lights return.
“The cooperative spirit is there every day, but during a storm like this, the co-op spirit is so evident,” Kelton said. “We’ve got to be the community partner. We’ve got to be standing there with our community leaders helping to lead the recovery efforts.”
Steven Johnson is a staff writer at NRECA.
Editor’s note: this post was updated Sept. 3 with new outage information.