Powering Strong Communities
Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Time (Again) to Prepare While Skies Are Blue

Weather waits for no one and the 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season – officially June 1 – looms as the public power industry continues to wrestle with the supply chain and workforce issues affecting all sectors of the economy. Utilities need, more than ever, to encourage their customers to prepare for severe weather.

Every family has its story. I will never forget the summer that my second daughter was about nine months old and the D.C. area experienced a “Derecho” (high winds, downed trees, etc.) right before the Fourth of July holiday. It was hot, but we had an old window AC unit and a small diesel generator so we prioritized charging the AC unit overnight with the generator plugged in outside of the window. We all huddled in one room together – we got maybe seven hours of blessed coolness. Needless to say, we have since bought a larger generator and are careful to never bring it inside if we need to fire it up. Many residents of the D.C. region had probably never heard of a derecho before it struck. We know what one is now!

Every year is unique and holds fresh challenges. Fortunately, APPA works closely with federal government agencies, our fellow utility trade associations, and the utilities themselves to prepare. A specific way APPA’s team stays sharp is by participating regularly in Clear Path, the annual all-hazards energy security and resilience exercise series organized by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER). As they describe it, “(s)ince 2013, Clear Path has brought together over 1,000 energy sector partners to update policies and procedures, identify areas for collective improvement, and strengthen coordination during a catastrophic incident.” In other words, we get to meet virtually to role-play a simulated natural disaster to see just what could happen and how we can and should be better prepared. 

This spring, members of our communications team participated in the Clear Path X Social Media Drill. It was an eye-opener for them and helpful to our efforts to better aid our members in the event of a disaster. CESER built a simulated scenario that was very relevant and realistic in terms of navigating the information and disinformation that circulates during a crisis. 

There’s a saying often attributed to Mark Twain – although it may originate as far back as Jonathan Swift: “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” Another version of the saying, with a more domestic flavor, is “falsehood proceeds from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling on his boots.” Whoever said it, the truth of this saying was underscored during the Clear Path X Social Media Drill. Twain and Swift certainly didn’t have social media!

A crucial takeaway was that the necessary education, preparation, and building of trust between utilities and their communities must take place while the skies are blue. This approach can help mitigate and offset the disinformation that ignorance and uncertainty breed when the clouds roll in. When a crisis hits, options narrow dramatically. At that point, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty dominate. Rumors and outright lies can abound as quickly as users can retweet on their smartphones. 

Public power utilities are – or can be (learn how)– part of a mutual aid community of more than 2,000. With mutual aid, a group of utilities from across the country come together and agree before a storm ever happens to share their crews and lineworkers. In the event of a storm, they often preposition crews from all over the country to get ready. They don't position their crews in the line of the storm for obvious reasons. But they are ready on the outskirts of the storm to go in and help restore power as soon as it is safe to do so. That's the crux of the Mutual Aid Network, and it is an incredible thing to behold the lines of bucket trucks rolling into communities after a major storm. Informing customers of this amazing process in advance could help during the crisis.

We also work closely with our fellow electric sector trade associations to ensure that we can rely on each other for major storm response activities. APPA also provides easily accessible planning resources for our member public power utilities:

  • The Restoration Best Practices Guidebook is a collection of tips and practices for utilities and other entities involved in utility restoration operations and emergency management. Public power utilities either requesting or responding to mutual aid and joint action agencies, state and regional associations, and others working on restoration can download the guidebook to learn how to plan and participate in effective restoration operations.
  • The All-Hazards Guidebook walks public power utilities, joint action agencies, state and regional associations, and other industry representatives through the five-step preparedness cycle to help in the development or continuous improvement of emergency preparedness programs and all-hazards planning efforts.
  • APPA members can download the Mutual Aid Playbook which provides a process for coordinating activities, information, and resources across a three-tiered national network without infringing on mutual aid agreements between utilities. The playbook is intentionally flexible and scalable to enable the successful coordination of mutual aid mobilizations for restoration events resulting from all hazards, including natural and man-made disasters and security or cybersecurity events that result in utility customer outages. 
  • A Storm Communications Guide for APPA members offers tips to communicate effectively with all stakeholders before, during, and after a storm and includes template press releases, sample social media posts, and checklists. A collection of infographics, tips, and other communications templates are available to download and use in explaining disaster response and recovery.

Utility customers can also do a lot to prepare themselves for emergencies. I encourage you to direct them to the preparedness resources from Ready.gov and to ensure they remain safe in the immediate aftermath of a storm when electric lines are down. The Electrical Safety Foundation International is also a great resource for customer-facing content.

As I’ve said before, but cannot say often enough, I appreciate that electric utility lineworkers, control room operators, and other essential workers are willing to be there for their customers 24/7/365 in all conditions. In some cases, during a crisis, these essential workers leave their own families to help restore power for their neighbor or their neighboring utility, or even a utility several states away. Depending on the situation, they're sometimes going to be away from their families for days or even weeks. And they do it because they love the mission of providing power. And they know that electricity is the lifeblood of our economy and our communities. It's an incredible thing and it continues to fill me with admiration.

I’m confident that we will weather the 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season with a combination of preparation, coordination, communication, and commitment.