Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Safety and Storms

In the aftermath of Isaias, we have the electric industry responding to the first major multi-state storm of our COVID-19 era.

In April, public power utilities underwent trial runs when they sent crews to restore power after tornadoes hit Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. In early May, Nashville, Tennessee experienced a severe derecho that caused significant damage. Even early on in the pandemic, crews used masks and other personal protective equipment, implemented social distancing protocols, and practiced enhanced hygiene to keep themselves safe and healthy while helping their fellow communities.  In hearing from the public power utilities that participated in those “mutual aid” events, these measures worked to keep the several hundred lineworkers who took part in the efforts safe.

Fast forward over three months, and the industry has had to respond to more than 3.6 million customers without power (at the height of the outages) along the East Coast, particularly in the New Jersey, New York, and New England areas.  While some might be flashing back to Superstorm Sandy in 2012 in terms of the locations impacted, Isaias is significantly less serious.  Having said that, the lessons learned from Sandy are on full display this week.  What strikes me most as a positive change from then to now is the high level of industry, federal government, and state government coordination as well as intra-industry (public power, investor-owned, and cooperative) coordination.

For a few reasons – size, governance, and contractual relationships – most of the time, public power utilities help each other to respond to major events and the same with the other groups, although occasionally, not-for-profit public power and cooperative utilities help each other out as well.  The IOUs have typically coordinated with each other through their mutual aid network.  However, Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Maria required those relationships to change.  We figured out ways, in advance of storms, to share crews across our governance structures when needed and practical.  In the case of Isaias, I know of at least one public power utility in Florida - JEA - which is sending crews to help Consolidated Edison, the investor-owned utility serving New York City. Within the region, the New York Power Authority is assisting New York State Electric and Gas, an investor-owned utility serving portions of New York State, and South Norwalk Electric and Water in Connecticut is assisting Eversource Energy, an investor-owned utility serving New England. Additionally, several members of the Municipal Electric Utilities Association of New York and the New York Association of Public Power have been involved in restoration efforts. The Town of Massena Electric Department first assisted other public power utilities in New England, then joined public power utilities Plattsburgh Municipal Lighting Department and the Village of Tupper Lake Municipal Electric System in assisting an investor-owned utility, Central Hudson Gas and Electric. Tupper Lake also assisted another investor-owned utility, Avangrid, after being released by Central Hudson. Bath Electric, Gas & Water Systems and the Village of Endicott also assisted Avangrid.

Many crews from public power utilities have been helping each other within the region and beyond. For example, public power utilities in Ohio have been sent to help Vineland, New Jersey, and NYAPP organized crews from Steuben Rural Electric, Village of Sherburne, Freeport, Oneida-Madison Cooperative and Otsego Electric Cooperative to assist the Village of Rockville Centre.

In terms of the federal government, APPA staff is in daily contact with the Department of Energy to ensure that we can troubleshoot any red tape that might crop up as crews move from state to state, especially given COVID-19.  While the industry has created protocols that have been incorporated into the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council’s COVID-19 Resource Guide, we were still not entirely sure how the state border crossings would go and how crews would be treated.  I am very happy to report that, so far, impacted states have welcomed these essential crews and trusted them to adhere to the safety culture we deploy daily at home – whether in response to health safety or electrical safety.

My thoughts and prayers are with those crews and with the people in impacted states still without power.  The vital nature of electricity is never on greater display than when it is gone, and our industry is acutely aware of that.  Our crews will not rest until power is restored.