Co-op Power Restoration Efforts Continue Amid Florence’s Flooding Threats

Union Power Cooperative lineworkers endeavor to work safely in dangerous conditions. (Photo courtesy: Union Power Cooperative)

Updated: Sept. 18, 8:45 a.m.

When electric cooperative employees and their consumer-members remember the storm known as Florence, many will likely talk about it as two events that hit back to back, with winds and heavy rain first, followed by flooding that pushed streams and rivers into subdivisions and neighborhoods.

“All the water that came in when Florence was a hurricane or tropical storm is now headed back toward the coast as stormwater runoff,” said Gay Johnson, director of corporate communications at Four County Electric Membership Corp. “We have a lot of flooded roads and debris, including broken limbs and uprooted trees that are blocking the roadways, so we still can’t get to many of the areas we need to reach to repair the lines.”

The Burgaw, North Carolina-based co-op had 17,000 meters out as of Tuesday morning.

“We’re answering calls 24/7, with member service reps working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., before they are relieved by the night shift that covers phones until morning,” said Johnson. “We’re all staying here, because our headquarters is like an island, with everything flooded around us.”

While flash flooding has been the problem in many areas, the focus is now on river and stream flooding, with dozens of major waterways still days away from cresting. As electric cooperative crews work nonstop to restore power, co-ops are warning their members that more outages could come.

With the Northeast Cape Fear River already out of its banks and inland flooding still getting worse, some co-op-served communities that suffered days of torrential rains and gale-force winds are likely to see waters rise again in the days ahead.

“The rivers have not crested yet, so if we were even able to get home, we might not be able to get back,” said Johnson. “This is a catastrophic event that we could be facing like this for as long as two weeks.”

• North Carolina co-op outage map
• South Carolina co-op outage map

Slow-but-Steady Progress

Power restoration efforts have quickly reduced the numbers of co-op meters out of service as a result of wind damage over the weekend. Outage numbers in co-op-served territories in North Carolina were down to 112,000 on Tuesday morning from a high of 326,000 on Friday.

For Newport, North Carolina-based Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative, ongoing transmission issues still being repaired by investor-owned utility crews have kept the co-op from restoring service to about two-thirds of its overall membership.

“We’ve been able to power up several substations from our transmission substation,” said the co-op’s communications director, Lisa Galizia. “We’ve done that to get power on where we can, but there are still some places we still can’t reach.”

But across the co-op’s service territory, more than 280 lineworkers and tree crew members have been busy rebuilding the system so that when the substations are re-energized, more subdivisions and neighborhoods will be quickly put back online.

“We’ve got a crew on every circuit coming out of every substation,” said Galizia. “While they’re running into some issues, the water is starting to recede. Conditions are soggy, but they’re working in there to do what they can.”

With parts of many roads closed in North and South Carolina, including some stretches of Interstate 95, crews in many hard-hit areas have faced detours reaching areas where they safely can restore power.

The Perils of More Flooding

Co-ops are warning that more outages are possible particularly in areas that include newer commercial and residential developments served by buried power lines and ground-mounted transformers.

“Underground systems are not directly affected by toppled trees,” said Rob Ardis, an electrical engineer and CEO of Santee Electric Cooperative in Kingstree, South Carolina.

“The buried wires are heavily insulated for years of safe, dependable service, and the transformers sit above ground, covered from rain but in unsealed cabinets,” said Ardis, whose cooperative serves about 44,000 members in four counties. “We can’t seal the transformer cabinets, because the heat they generate needs a way to get out.”

Floodwaters can inundate the transformer cabinets, damaging internal components, and saltwater from storm surge can damage switch gears and other equipment, causing more outages.

Officials in South Carolina have warned that flooding could persist for several more days as waterways rise and fall as part of the natural drainage process. Some rivers in the Carolinas are rising more quickly than hydrologists forecast, and as many as 50 rivers in the Southeast and parts of the mid-Atlantic region could be pushed to or above flood stage in the days ahead.

Record rainfall in parts of the mid-Atlantic region this summer means trees there, still heavy with leaves, are at risk.

Co-ops Helping Co-ops

Mutual aid has been the muscle backing up the bone structure of the co-op network in areas hit by Florence. Co-op crews and their longtime contractors have logged thousands of miles to reach hard-hit areas and then taken guidance from co-op retirees, staking technicians, engineers and meter techs to make sure they are working where they can make the most impact getting service restored to as many members as possible.

“In the electric co-op world, teamwork means linemen and crews rally to support those without power,” said Kristie Aldridge, director of communications for North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. “Hundreds of crews, some from as far away as Alabama, Florida, Indiana and Minnesota, are assisting our North Carolina co-ops to form teams that will not stop until every light is on.”

Electric co-ops from more than a dozen states, including those from parts of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia that originally kept their crews available for local response, are now involved in power restoration where they are needed.

“Arkansas cooperatives have sent approximately 100 pieces of equipment that include service bucket trucks, bucket trucks, digger derricks, pickups and pole trailers,” said Rob Roedel, a spokesman for Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., adding that more crews remain available should they be needed.

“Personnel from the Alabama Rural Electric Association are keeping in close touch with their counterparts in North Carolina so plans can be made to shift crews from one area to another, as the need arises,” said Lenore Vickrey, the association’s vice president of communications. She added that if they are needed, “the crews can expect to spend a week to 10 days helping restore power.”

About 175 co-op staffers from Georgia are also committed to the rebuilding effort, with equipment from 22 of the state’s co-ops now in the region.

“We have a network of cooperatives across the country that will spring into action and help a fellow co-op during emergencies and times of crisis,” said Harry Reeves, vice president of training, education and safety for Georgia Electric Membership Corp. “We have an unwritten agreement that says if we’re in trouble, they help us. In return, we help them.”

That mutual aid force is making a huge impact toward cutting outage numbers, and crews are being shifted around as work is completed.

“Thirty-three Missouri electric co-ops sent 182 cooperative lineworkers to the Carolinas to assist with storm cleanup,” said Jim McCarty, a spokesman for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. “Missouri sent both construction and service crews to help with the power restoration efforts.”

National Response to Power Outages

NRECA continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and top executives from the electric utility industry supporting a co-op response that could involve mutual assistance from across the nation for weeks to come.

“Major storms like Florence test our resolve, but also bring out the best in electric cooperatives as they work around the clock to reconnect local communities,” said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson.

“Daily phone calls with folks on the ground and those planning to travel to help restoration are coordinated by the statewide storm coordinators,” said Martha Duggan, NRECA’s regulatory issues director. “The information from those calls is helpful as we provide situational awareness to our federal partners.”

“This is a long-duration event, and we appreciate the ongoing leadership from DOE, DHS, and FEMA in helping to coordinate the industry’s response with federal, state, and local officials,” said Duane Highley, president and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.

Highley co-chairs the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council, which works with federal partners and other stakeholders to help maintain and secure the nation’s power grid and other critical infrastructure.

ESCC officials have said the industry, its contractors, and state and federal agencies have committed about 40,000 people to the Florence response for the electric grid.

Read more:

Information Hub: Electric Co-ops and Florence
NRECA Supporting Co-ops in Affected Areas
Photo Gallery: Scenes From Co-ops’ Storm Response
Co-ops’ Social Media Outreach