50,000 Utility Workers Strive to Get Power Back Up After Irma

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By Tripp Baltz

Hurricane Irma’s rampage through Florida, Georgia, and other parts of the Southeast left upward of 8 million people without power, prompting dozens of utility companies to mobilize tens of thousands of employees to respond to one of the largest electric industry restoration efforts in U.S. history.

Power companies from as far away as California and Canada have lent line workers, equipment operators, mechanics, and other support personnel to that army of workers to help utilities whose systems and equipment have been devastated by the storm. Crews are working 16-hour days with a mandatory eight hours off as they strive to repair damage and restore power.

The expenses for these efforts include not only pay for hours worked and overtime earned by the restoration workers, but also the cost of lodging, food, transportation, logistics, equipment, and other needs for out-of town employees. The host company that makes the initial call for help in a crisis pays the wages and expenses for emergency response workers.

Mutual Assistance

The Southeastern Electric Exchange, a regional mutual assistance group that includes Florida Power and Light, Tampa Electric, Duke Energy, and other utility companies heavily affected by Irma, is coordinating much of the mutual assistance response in the aftermath of the storm. That means it is matching out-of-state workers with affected utilities, who then assign the workers to locations and tasks.

Out-of-state utility workers often jump at the opportunity to provide assistance following a hurricane, earthquake, or similar emergency, not just because of the extra pay involved, but because of the “satisfaction of helping other people in a crisis,” Greg Grillo, who recently retired as the system storm incident commander for Entergy, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 12. Grillo now runs Incident Preparedness & Response Solutions LLC in Little Rock, Ark.

“A lot of it is just about going there to help people,” Grillo said. “They are the heroes who help people start putting their lives back to normal.”

Payback Later

Emergency power workers continue to receive their regular pay and expense reimbursement from their home employer for the time they work in a mutual assistance situation, seeing the additional money for overtime on their paychecks, Grillo said. The home company will later seek payback from the host company to cover those added costs. Workers are also paid for their travel time.

Often, the host company is overwhelmed by the emergency and can’t pay for logistics, food, and lodging, he said. “It can get pretty expensive for the affected company,” he said. Numbers can add up when workers fly in or drive across the country to provide needed help.

There are other risks for workers who come into an area with which they are unfamiliar, Mark Stutz, spokesman for Xcel Energy of Colorado, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 11. “It’s good money and it’s satisfying work, two reasons why many of our employees like to do it,” he said. “You’re turning somebody’s lights back on. But we tell them, ‘You are not going to be working in your environment. It’s a whole different world of critters down there, including snakes and alligators.’”

Specialized Crews

Xcel sent 69 workers, including 62 linemen and seven mechanics, safety personnel, and support crew, to Georgia. Because of the specialized equipment the crew was driving, they could not go more than 50 miles an hour on the way down. “These vehicles aren’t made for long hauling,” he said. “They were in a convoy, so they had to keep it safe.”

Because of extensive damage from Irma in many areas, some 50,000 utility workers will have to completely rebuild infrastructure systems before power can be restored, according to Edison Electric Institute, a trade group comprising most of the nation’s investor-owned utilities.

Georgia Power said it could take several days, if not weeks, for crews to restore power given the need for damage assessment teams to enter the field and determine when conditions are safe to work.

30-Hour Lockdown

Mayra Tostado, spokeswoman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., an investor-owned utility based in San Jose, Calif., flew with a crew of 125 line workers, equipment operators, supervisors, and support personnel from Sacramento, Calif., to West Palm Beach, Fla., on Sept. 8, before the storm hit the U.S. mainland. “We were on mandatory lockdown for 30 hours in our hotel while we waited for the all-clear from Florida Power & Light to begin restoration work,” Tostado said.

The first day, PG&E crews began restoring power in Jupiter, Fla., where there were downed lines, fallen power poles, and vegetation that had caused outages. On Sept. 12, the crews began assessing and repairing other damaged electrical equipment. “We are under the direction of FPL, and we don’t know how long it will take,” she said. PG&E and Florida Power & Light signed a mutual-aid agreement in 2014.

About 1,000 employees and contractors from Exelon Corp.'s six electric utilities—Atlantic City Electric, BGE, ComEd, Delmarva Power, PEC and Pepco—went to Florida and Georgia. In addition, some 75 of the company’s customer contact center employees are helping to answer overflow emergency calls from the region.

Camping, Staging

Some 9,000 Duke Energy employees have been deployed to Florida to restore power. For two days, a crew from Indiana camped at a stage site in Perry, Ga., until it was safe to continue on to Florida and disperse to assigned work areas, the company said.

Workers venture into areas where downed power lines are intertwined with fallen trees, sometimes working in the dark with only a flashlight. “As long as we’re vigilant about being safe, it will work out,” said Mike Volrich, a damage assessor from Bloomington, Ind., with nearly 30 years with Duke Energy. Volrich was in one of 1,500 crews from Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio that were ordered to pack for two weeks and head south to Florida.

FPL, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, the nation’s largest utility, has 19,000 employees working in the company’s service territory in south Florida.

“We have the largest restoration workforce in U.S. history responding to the worst storm in our company’s history,” Eric Silagy, president and CEO of FPL, said in a Sept. 11 statement. “Our crews are out restoring power, and every hour of every day more and more people are getting their lights back.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at abaltz@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

For More Information

A primer on the Mutual Assistance Program is available from Edison Electric Institute at http://src.bna.com/sr7

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