A dedication to restoration

Linemen work to repair utility poles in the Natchitoches area Photo by Hannah Richardson

By Times Staff

When the power goes off and residents are left in sweltering hot residences, it may seem like the utilities will never return. Hurricane Laura resulted in about 17,000 people without power from SWEPCO with some still waiting after seven and eight days. “We appreciate our customers’ patience and understanding of the magnitude of this recovery effort, and we are working to provide more detailed information for customers as we go,” SWEPCO Corporate Communications Director Carey Sullivan said in an interview Thursday. She says Hurricane Laura caused more damage to SWEPCO’s transmission and distribution system than any in history. Just about everywhere one looks this week, linesmen are stringing thousands of feet of conductors and replacing hundreds of utility poles. Sullivan provided information about the process of restoring power following the hurricane.

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NT: Where do utility poles come from? Is there a storage area and how many are in stock? How do you estimate how large the stockpile should be? Where are they stored? SULLIVAN: SWEPCO buys wooden poles from Stella-Jones, which has locations in Converse, Pineville and Alexandria. We work with the company to determine how many poles should be delivered to different locations – service centers, base camps or temporary laydown yards. Prior to the storm, SWEPCO increased its inventory of utility poles, conductor (wire), insulators, cross-arms and other supplies. More materials and supplies are ordered as needed. American Electric Power, SWEPCO’s parent company, operates six other utilities and purchases materials from a number of vendors across the country. Some materials were placed at the staging areas we had identified prior to Hurricane Laura hitting. As soon as Hurricane Laura passed, SWEPCO employees did a quick recon (damage assessment) to give a high-level understanding of the damage and materials needed. Our materials and supplies needs become clearer as we receive detailed assessments of the damage.

NT: We are impressed by the large number of out-of-state workers here repairing the lines. How do you determine the number of linemen and what area they respond to? How do you summon them to your service area?

Linemen work to repair utility poles in the Natchitoches area ; Photo by Hannah Richardson

SULLIVAN: SWEPCO calls in workers from its AEP sister utilities to assist local employees. SWEPCO also enlists the help of personnel from other electric companies through mutual assistance agreements, as well as contract workers. As part of utility mutual assistance, SWEPCO employees also assist other utilities to restore service after hurricanes, ice storms and other natural disasters. So far this year, SWEPCO employees have assisted utilities in Texas, New Jersey, Florida, Indiana and Michigan.

NT: Is there an average length of time that power is down following types of disasters (floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.)

SULLIVAN: The length of the restoration depends on the extent of the damage to the power grid. This hurricane caused more damage to SWEPCO’s transmission and distribution system than any storm in our company’s history. This is also the largest number of outside resources we have called in to a SWEPCO storm restoration – about 3,000 workers. Hurricane Laura is the strongest storm to hit Louisiana since the Last Island Hurricane on Aug. 10, 1856, and has tied for the fifth strongest hurricane to make landfall in the continental U.S. We’re always working as quickly and as safely as possible to restore power.

NT: Does your company provide room and board for those out-of-state workers? SULLIVAN: Yes. We have partnered with companies that set up staging areas to feed and house the nearly 3,000 workers brought in to respond to the storm. We have base camps at NSU in Natchitoches, Leesville and Shreveport. Each location has a kitchen, dining tent, sleeping trailers and tents, shower and restroom facilities and laundry service. Workers are provided a hot breakfast and dinner and a boxed lunch.

-17,000 customers affected at peak

-3,000 additional workers

-800 utility poles used

-1,500 cross arms used

-4,500 insulators used

-150,000 feet of conductor (wire) used

-700 personnel moved to new base camp at NSU

*Numbers approximate. Provided by Swepco

NT: It appears that churches and other service groups here are providing some meals and other provisions for those workers. Is that customary in all the areas you serve? SULLIVAN: Workers continuously tell us how gracious and hospitable everyone is here. While this happens during storm recovery elsewhere, it has been exceptional here.

NT: The process to restore power seems so organized. Does your company train for these emergencies?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely! We use the Incident Command System (ICS), which is used by governmental agencies across the country to respond to everything from a local emergency to a large disaster. We regularly train and practice for emergencies. We critique our emergency response efforts after every storm. We’re always looking to improve.

NT: Do the linesmen get hazard pay or regular pay and are there crews that respond only to emergencies?

SULLIVAN: SWEPCO linemen are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers (IBEW). They’re paid according to AEP and SWEPCO’s contract with them. Contractors are paid according to rules set by their companies.

NT: Can you tell me how many customers were out of power in this area following Hurricane Laura?

SULLIVAN: At the peak, approximately 17,000 customers in the Natchitoches area (includes areas outside of the parish) were without power.

NT: Would you care to add other remarks?

Weatherhead repairs: SWEPCO cannot connect power to a home or business if there is damage to the service entrance, which is owned by the customer. Customers need to have a qualified electrician repair this damage before power can be restored. The service entrance includes the metal box housing SWEPCO’s meter, the “weatherhead” pipe on top of the meter box, the service entrance cables running from the weatherhead through the meter box to the inside panel box, and other related facilities. Similar responsibilities apply to underground service. After repairs are made, contact SWEPCO to have power restored.