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Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Preparing to be resilient in hurricane season

When Hurricane Laura swept through in August 2020, our town was devastated. Laura is tied for being the strongest hurricane on record to make landfall in Louisiana — a more powerful storm than Hurricane Katrina — and hit right on our community in the southwest corner of Louisiana.

In addition to all the debris and destruction of homes, businesses, and our local distribution system, about 12 miles of transmission lines that fed ours and surrounding communities were lying on the ground after Laura passed through. Our entire system was out.

Initial estimates predicted that it would take two months for the transmission to come back up. Fortunately, we were able to get most people back on in what I would consider record time – given the extent of the damage – about two-thirds were back within two and a half weeks, and a full restoration of power to everyone that could take it a week after that.

The event hit home the importance of preparedness planning, and some key traits about what it means to be resilient.

Always planning 

Given our location, we take steps to prepare for hurricane season every year.

Since the 2005 season, which included Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, we have held a yearly staff meeting to kick off the season and make sure we have everything lined up that we need.

Sometimes, when a number of years go by without needing to enact a significant storm response, policies can start to get a little more relaxed. And every storm is different and comes with its own nuances.

There are some things we do every year – such as lining up supplies – in advance of the season. We always buy food and plenty of water and Gatorade so that we know employees will have enough to eat and to stay hydrated while working on restoration. We all know that the closer we get to a predicted storm, the tougher it can get to procure these items. So if we see a possible storm coming, even if it’s still far out, we order a pallet of water – and even if the storm doesn’t come to us, we’ll use it anyways year-round.

Aside from the strength of the storm, Laura also struck us in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which presented some added and interesting challenges.

In the past, when we had a predicted storm approaching, we’d be sure to have employees lined up to work throughout the restoration. Last year, we also had to plan out how to house employees and any visiting mutual aid crews given everything that was closed for the extra safety precautions. As it happened, in the aftermath of Laura, I slept on an air mattress in my office. 

Another big area of preparation is making sure we have all the necessary contracts and paperwork in place to be ready to get the help we might need and to follow the appropriate rules and processes for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

We hired a consulting company to monitor our contracts and manage interactions with FEMA. For us, it made sense to hire a consultant because if you don’t do this all the time, then you don’t appreciate how FEMA might want everything done – how information should be presented, which forms you need. These interactions, and the documentation you need to keep, can be very long-term. With Hurricane Rita, we had FEMA coming back with questions or needing details as much as 12 years after the storm. As we were going through an administration change July  2021, we didn’t want to add another burden to the new administration.

When we knew Hurricane Laura was coming, one thing we knew we’d need was to have a debris contract in place. Having the debris contract in place in advance, issued following FEMA’s contract process and rules, helps expedite the clearing for the trees and other debris that create a lot of problems in restoration. With Laura, we had to clear almost 153,000 cubic yards of debris.

Planning is also about doing the important work in blue-sky times. During this “off” time, we look at repairing and replacing poles. About five years ago, we changed some distribution lines, and those didn’t have any problem during the storms. If they had been wooden poles, they would have added to our immediate repair needs following Laura.

Being networked

A major element in preparedness planning and resilience is the relationships you have.

Even if you think you are an island, geographically or otherwise, it is important to stay on good terms with anyone and any association you can – you never know who will make the difference in getting you the help you need.

This includes at the local, state, and national levels. When it comes to our electric system, we have the Louisiana Energy and Power Authority - or LEPA - a joint action agency, and then we have all the other electric companies in our region who we might call on for mutual aid. And then there’s our local emergency operations center. Nationally, being connected to the American Public Power Association through the national Mutual Aid Network also helped immensely in getting through to other national-level entities about our specific situation and needs.

Through these relationships, we were able to elevate our concerns about getting transmission reconnected – and relay some alternative ideas for what could work for our town – through the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, via APPA.

The storm’s path, intensity, and timing during the pandemic created added difficulties. Because it was a transmission-level issue, our efforts in the early days felt a lot like “Groundhog Day” – it felt like nothing was really changing in our morning debrief. 

It took a week and a half before we started seeing progress, and having these relationships made that waiting a whole lot more bearable. The calls from APPA, LEPA, and daily morning meetings with Greg Labbe from Lafayette Utility Systems reminded me that we hadn’t been forgotten.  

In the thick of it, it could be tough to get a straight answer on why we weren’t getting the resources we needed. We spent about a week trying to get a large generator, and the holdup came down to who needed to make the request – which was supposed to come from the state, not the city.

Vinton is one of six cities in the parish, and we have an executive policy group – which includes mayors, our sheriff, and a president of the Police Jury – that meets on all kinds of things. Before and after Laura, we came together to talk about our needs. This connection and model works really well in that it allows us to speak with one voice to the EOC instead of firing off independent requests and updates.

These various relationships also helped us connect and better communicate with Entergy – who was working on restoring the transmission system – on arranging for transformers and in connecting to our substation in Vinton to feed off of another transmission line.

Being part of the mutual aid network really helped us, too. We have had contracts in place in 2005, and we had LUS on standby for Hurricane Ike in 2007, but Laura was the first time we actually enacted mutual aid since then.

LUS came to our aid and were truly heroes throughout the aftermath. Since no local hotels were available, their teams went home every night - driving 90 miles every morning and night to do the work. They picked up quickly, and after a day or so, our crews didn’t have to ride along with LUS crews to figure out where and how to help. Since they do this a lot, they were also able to bring other public power mutual aid crews in from Florida and Georgia, as necessary.

To show our thanks, we had a parade in town as they drove to go home, with maybe 300 people on the streets cheering them on as they left. We also symbolically named the location where they put in the new transformer the Greg Labbe substation in recognition of his effort to resolve that issue.

Building connections

Laura also showed us the importance of being able to be connected to your community.

We encouraged people to have generators handy, but fuel was tough to find for a while after the storm and they cost a lot to run.

In advance of the storm, we urged people with special needs to leave town and stay gone until we knew the power could be back, if they were able, so that they wouldn’t face any medical issues.

As we look ahead, we are looking at building a social media presence and considering other ways to ensure our community can receive information from a central, trusted place. If your city doesn’t already have information avenues for communication for people to sign up, I encourage you to explore your options. Just like it was nice to hear from our connections at the state and national levels, it would be helpful for people to sign up so that we can push information to them and let them know what is happening.

 


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