When Hurricane Laura rumbled ashore as a Category 4 storm last week, more than a half-million electric utility connections were knocked offline, and at least 20% of the affected meters are served by electric cooperatives.
Restoration work began immediately, but about 67,000 co-op members remained out of service Tuesday. NRECA talked with Jeffrey Arnold, CEO of the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, about the extent of damage, the massive restoration efforts under way, and the challenges facing co-ops, their staffs and their members as their communities begin the tasks of rebuilding.
What do co-op outages look like for your member systems, and getting beyond the numbers, what can you tell us about the impact on the co-op-served community?
Arnold: At this time, basically all transmission towers are down, and the current recovery is going to be long. Co-op teams are mostly focused on our distribution networks and substations, making sure they are ready to receive power as soon as our transmission partners can provide it to those substations. Unfortunately, we cannot give co-op members an estimate of time other than “weeks” at this moment because of the number of transmission poles and towers that are down and the time and effort it will take to rebuild the power grid. We know this is particularly frustrating for members who are eager to repair and rebuild their homes and businesses.
How rough are conditions right now in the affected communities?
Arnold: Hopefully, many of our members evacuated, and if they do not have power, they’re just coming back to do cleanup and going back to wherever their evacuation centers are. The state of Louisiana does have multiple evacuation centers open, and many co-op members have family and friends that they can reside with. Recovery in our communities is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We’re doing what we can to get the power back on, and we’re asking members to follow the governmental recommendations on staying out of the affected areas.
How critical have lessons learned from past events, including Hurricane Rita back in 2005, been in dealing with restoration and recovery?
Arnold: Lessons learned from previous storms that we’ve encountered have made a huge difference. I think that most people heeded the warnings specifically in this area due to memories of Rita. What’s been a real concern among people intent to remain in their homes and continue operation of their businesses is the improper use of generators. Unfortunately, that’s killing people.
Damage assessments in co-op-served areas are still ongoing, especially in the territory of Jeff Davis Electric Cooperative, where we not only had the hurricane wind effects but we also had major flooding and storm surge that left high water from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to Lake Charles.
But due to pre-planning and our mutual aid partners from co-ops around the country, we have been able to bring over 620 men and women to work and support restoration on co-op lines. So as soon as the transmission lines are able to provide the power, we’ll turn the lights and air conditioning back on and people will be able to use power to help with cleanup.
COVID-19 concerns have had a broad impact on how individual systems operate and how the co-op network responds to major outage events. How is that being addressed?
Arnold: At both of our most seriously affected co-ops, Jeff Davis EC and Beauregard EC, we have tent cities that hold up to up 500 people for each tent. We’re keeping maximum capacity in those tents down to 250 people, and we’re regularly reminding the people to practice social distancing. That’s particularly important when they’re not with their crews from back home.
We’re also urging them to stay masked as much as possible to mitigate potential exposures and to follow their own cooperative’s policies when it comes to COVID-19-related issues.
Of course, all of this requires higher costs, more tents, more and larger locations for deployment. Not only do we need to house everyone, but meals are being served individually instead of by buffet lines. We are packaging the meals and handing them out in boxes and maintaining social distancing through scheduling and distribution methods.
Restrooms and showers are cleaned after each use whenever possible.
Those changes naturally impact the efficiency of moving people around. Add in the added time of managing the flow of parts and material distribution and fueling, and that is naturally going to prolong our total recovery timeline.
We’re working well with our partners, particularly with the COVID-19 concerns and mitigation measures in place.
What can you tell us about the cooperation from your local co-op-served communities, parishes and state agencies in the aftermath of the storm?
Arnold: We’ve actually done very well. We discuss fuel issues and there really have not been any problems. We are getting the things that we need. Our contractors in the tent cities are bringing in supplies and staff and feeding our crews and conducting housekeeping and doing everything that we need for them to do.
Working with our emergency operations center and the state has been great. Officials have been very responsive. We have had assessments done from military helicopters down in Jeff Davis EC’s territory. Choppers were the only way to access flooded areas, with water levels receding slowly.
Unfortunately, the assessment showed severe damage, catastrophic damage, on the transmission system, They have over 1,000 poles broken or down within that area that was patrolled.
What would you like to share at this point with those who might face similar challenges in the future?
Arnold: We’ll all get together after this restoration effort is completed and review the overall impacts of COVID-19 mitigation strategies and procedures. This could be particularly important whenever we face future major mutual aid efforts following large disruptive events.
There’s not enough good things I can say about the level of support that’s been provided as we continue to deal with Hurricane Laura’s destruction. If we could put 500 people in a tent, we’d have them in there, but we’re following safety procedures and recommendations from public health experts. We are doing our best to take care of the crews who have come down to help us. Know that when you need us, we’ll be there.
Co-ops are staffed by people who live in the communities they serve. What do we know about the personal impact on co-op employees and their families?
Arnold: We know that there are at least 30 families of co-op staffers who have been extremely affected by Hurricane Laura. They’ve lost or suffered serious damage to their houses, and the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives has already established a fund to assist them with their recovery and help address their long-term issues.
For now, our co-ops have been able to put those families up in hotels to help keep them safe and comfortable while their spouses go about the business of getting power back on. That’s the thing about the electric cooperative family, and it’s universal.
We’re used to hurricanes, but this is the worst storm that we’ve seen in Louisiana, and hopefully will be the worst we ever see in our lifetimes.
This is the first time we’ve had a hurricane reach Claiborne Electric Cooperative, in northern Louisiana near the Arkansas state line, as a Category 1 storm. That small co-op has seen an amazing amount of damage to its system. And, like Jeff Davis and Beauregard, they have transmission issues. While they should be ready to receive power in short order, they’re at the mercy of transmission providers who still don’t know when they’ll complete restoration of their systems.
The Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives is accepting donations to assist the co-op employees who have suffered losses and major damage to their homes due to Hurricane Laura. Contact ALEC at 225-293-3450 or send donations to: ALEC Hurricane Relief Fund, care of ALEC, 10725 Airline Highway, Baton Rouge, LA 70816-4213