‘Gutted’: Line Crews Rebuild Systems in Wake of Louisiana Tornadoes

Crews start to clear the debris from the scene of a tornado that took down DEMCO power poles and lines in Louisiana. (Photo Courtesy: DEMCO)

As electric cooperatives celebrate Lineworker Appreciation Day in April, devastating tornadoes in Louisiana served as a hazardous reminder as to why they deserve recognition.

Just about every cooperative along the Gulf Coast was touched by thunderstorms and strong winds on April 10. The heaviest damage occurred in Louisiana, where tornadoes spiraled through the territories of DEMCO and Washington-St. Tammany Electric Cooperative, causing outages for more than 42,000 members of the two co-ops at peak.

Severe weather also was responsible for a large, fallen tree that crashed onto a truck driven by a DEMCO employee on an assessment assignment. Fortunately, the driver was treated for minor injuries.

But the incident and the mass of broken poles and downed wires untangled by hundreds of lineworkers reinforced the skill level needed to deal with storm damage and destruction.

“It is amazing to see how crews rebuilt massive electric infrastructure, such as new transmission and distribution poles, lines, and transformers, to reinstate service in a matter of days,” said Anne Hawes, manager of member and public relations at Greenwell Springs-based DEMCO.

One of more than 200 lineworkers on the scene starts to restore power for DEMCO members. (Photo Courtesy: DEMCO)

The combination of 110-mph winds and rains knocked out power to about 26,000 DEMCO members when the storms passed northwest of Baton Rouge.

An EF1 tornado that struck St. Francisville obliterated DEMCO’s infrastructure along a 20-mile swath. Hawes said. “It ravaged everything in its path as it passed through the town and gutted it,” she said.

More than 200 lineworkers and contractors, including mutual aid crews from Louisiana and Arkansas, worked through mounds of debris and challenging terrain to restore full power to members by April 15.

Thirty-three lineworkers with Arkansas Electric Cooperatives and Petit Jean Electric Cooperative in Clinton helped DEMCO, bringing additional off-road equipment with them. South Louisiana Electric Cooperative Association in Houma also dispatched mutual assistance lineworkers.

To the east of DEMCO, Washington-St. Tammany crews did a stellar job in swiftly restoring service in the aftermath of an EF2 tornado that blasted the Slidell area on April 10 with 120-mph winds. The tornado, the width of three football fields, stayed on the ground for almost 10 miles, according to the National Weather Service.

Crews from Washington-St. Tammany Electric Cooperative responded to damage from an EF2 tornado that ripped through the area around Slidell, Louisiana. (Photo Courtesy: Washington-St. Tammany Electric Cooperative)

About 17,000 Washington-St. Tammany members were without power at peak, but crews were able to restore power in less than 40 hours—a minor miracle in the view of Coylean Schloegel, manager of marketing and economic development at the Franklinton-based co-op.

The first priority was restoration of power at a hospital, and Washington-St. Tammany was able to backfeed the hospital to ensure service was uninterrupted.

“Our lineworkers and our contractors were incredible. After seeing the pictures of the damage that was out there, it’s amazing that people had lights so quickly. That speaks volumes about the co-op and these lineworkers. They’re definitely our heroes,” she said.

Steven Johnson is a contributing writer for NRECA.