Tropical Storm Complicates Hurricane Restoration Work for Louisiana Co-ops

A temporary mutual aid staging camp set up at Lake Charles Louisiana’s Chennault International Airport is being closed this week as the area prepares for Tropical Storm Beta. (Photo By: Jeff Davis EC)
A temporary mutual aid staging camp set up at Lake Charles Louisiana’s Chennault International Airport is being closed this week as the area prepares for Tropical Storm Beta. (Photo By: Jeff Davis EC)

Tropical Storm Beta is expected to slow or stall efforts by electric cooperative crews this week to restore power to co-op members after Hurricane Laura slammed into their service territory late last month.

“In the midst of this recovery, we have another storm headed for the region, and in an abundance of caution, we’re moving all of our people and equipment out of harm’s way,” said Mike Heinen, general manager of Jeff Davis Electric Cooperative. “We’ve made the decision to dismantle the man camp and move it from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Lafayette.”

That means about 750 lineworkers, vegetation management personnel and support staff will leave Lake Charles’s Chennault International Airport on Tuesday and drive 60 miles east to the Cajundome Convention Center.

“While Tropical Storm Beta is not expected to be a major wind event, floodwaters are already rising,” said Heinen. “We cannot risk crew safety or the safety of the specialized equipment they use to restore power. We have to keep them safe.”

The convention center is further east than Beta’s projected track and is 20 feet higher than the airport property. It’s also less subject to structural damage from the storm’s gale-force winds in excess of 40 mph.

“The Cajundome is large enough to be able to support everybody who needs to go there, plus all of the equipment on wheels can be moved there and parked until the storm passes,” said Heinen.

Line trucks are pictured at the Cajundome on Wednesday morning after crews relocated due to Tropical Storm Beta. (Photo By: Mary Laurent/SLEMCO)

Jeff Davis EC officials began discussing the plan with senior leadership from the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives on Friday. They also reached out to Lafayette-based Southwest Louisiana Electric Membership Corp. to assist with the arrangements with Cajundome management. Plans for the move were firmed up over the weekend, and all the gear for the existing encampment will be disassembled and stored beginning Tuesday.

“We have a lot of work left to do that takes more than just a couple of weeks,” said Heinen. Nearly half of the co-op’s 11,000 meters are still out of service as repairs to both distribution and transmission systems continue.

“With weeks or months of work remaining, there was no way I could see releasing so many skilled personnel,” said Heinen. “They will stand down with pay and be in a position to quickly return to the field Friday once our severe weather passes.”

Beauregard Electric Cooperative has not suspended its restoration work, but crews concluding their mutual aid commitments will depart this week and fresh crews will postpone their arrival in the co-op’s territory until after Beta’s threatening conditions subside. Power to nearly 80% of the Deridder-based distribution co-op’s meters has been restored.

“Beauregard EC has been monitoring Beta and has made preparations to relocate crews if necessary,” said Kevin Turner, the co-op’s general manager.  “With any type of storm, we ensure our linemen refrain from working in winds more than 40 mph, lightning or any other hazardous situations.”

Beauregard will house some of its mutual aid crews and contractors at the Cajundome temporarily, and some will be sheltered at other locations.

ALEC remains in contact with other electric co-op statewide associations involved in coordination of interstate mutual aid.

“With so much debris still laying around from Hurricane Laura, it is too dangerous for us to leave personnel inside a tent city,” said Aarron Graham, ALEC’s director of loss control. “It is hard to predict how strong the winds will be for Tropical Storm Beta, but any debris could easily become flying deadly projectiles. We can’t have our out-of-state crews living in harm’s way.”

Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.

More Hurricane Laura Coverage:

Co-op Communities Show Appreciation for Lineworkers in Aftermath of Hurricane Laura

Unique Challenges: Rebuilding Transmission Following Major Storms

In Hurricane Aftermath, Pregnant Co-op Employees Press On as Due Dates Approach

Q&A: Louisiana Co-op Leader Gives Firsthand Perspective on Hurricane Laura Recovery

Hurricane Laura: Tracking the Co-op Response