Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Lean On Me

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a podcast with a group called Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). The podcast is called “GovLove” and highlights the many good things that local governments do. Since public power utilities are units of state and local governments (mostly local), this was a fun podcast to do.  In addition to more serious questions, the interviewer, ELGL Executive Director and founder Kirsten Wyatt, interspersed “fun fact” type questions. The last one she asked was the song that might best encapsulate the theme of public power/the episode. Thankfully, I got that question in advance of recording and worked with my communications guru, Toby Sellier, on coming up with an appropriate song. We settled on “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers. If you haven’t listened to it in a while, I highly recommend indulging in a bit of nostalgia.

Why “Lean on Me”?  Because the story of public power is about neighbors helping neighbors and communities helping communities. Public power is locally governed and not-for-profit and, importantly, public power employees live and work in the communities they serve. If there is an unexpected service outage, our workers’ homes are just as likely to be impacted as those of their neighbors. There is something about that shared impact that inspires even more action to get the power restored in a timely manner. The public power workers in the 2,000 towns and cities across the country served by public power are inviting their neighbors and friends to lean on their expertise, dedication, and courage when it comes to power restoration. Electricity can be dangerous and must be treated with the utmost respect, or workers can lose their lives. It takes courage to work with that risk, and the risk of doing other parts of their jobs, such as climbing utility poles. It also takes courage to keep going to work in the middle of a pandemic.

This courage and dedication extend beyond each community to the network of public power communities across the country. This network is the group of friends “right up the road” that utilities can call on when they need a hand. When they have a load to bear that they can’t carry alone, just like the song says. We’ve seen this network recently help each other in response to Tropical Storm Isaias and Hurricanes Laura and Sally. Workers came from far-flung states to help restore power in other communities. Can you imagine for a second if they weren’t willing to do so – because of the pandemic? It would be devastating and take days or even weeks longer to restore the most essential of services, electricity.

Now imagine what it would be like to not have electricity at all. Hard to do, huh?

Believe it or not, there are close to 30,000 people on the Navajo Nation who do not have electricity in their homes – which means no running water, no refrigeration, no internet. Their situation is truly hard to believe but has been an issue for decades because of the challenge and expense of getting electric service to the remote areas of the Nation. “Light Up Navajo” (LUN) was conceived as a collaboration by APPA staff and the CEO of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, Wally Haase, who worked with my predecessor, Sue Kelly to rectify this situation. LUN highlighted the need and brought together more than 130 workers from 27 public power organizations for six weeks who worked in partnership with NTUA crews to bring electricity to more than 230 homes in 2019. The next iteration of LUN was planned for this year, but COVID-19 forced us to postpone. We have not given up nor forgotten the need and will be back to it as soon as we can.  

In the meantime, the public power ethic of service and community that has been on there for years is finally being recognized in a very public way. This recognition comes in the form of an award from the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). The “Power of A Summit Award,” which was given to APPA on September 30, is really a proxy for our member utilities and Wally Haase who stepped up and contributed time, materials and sheer willpower to bring electric service to families on the Navajo Nation in 2019. It demonstrates again that public power can be relied on, can be leaned on. Thank you to ASAE for the award, and to Wally Haase of NTUA, to the Navajo Nation, to Sue Kelly, and to the APPA staff for your work to bring the light. We’re honored to have this network of friends to lean on.

Photo in heading from Alysa Landry, who covered the Light Up Navajo initiative in 2019.