Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Island utilities meet on storm recovery challenges

More than 50 leaders and employees from utilities serving island territories – including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Marianas Islands, and Guam – gathered for a virtual, half-day workshop on August 19 to discuss their unique challenges and practices in storm recovery and resilience, including participating in mutual aid. Participants and presenters also included individuals from utilities on the mainland that responded to mutual aid requests from their island peers.

The workshop reviewed the coordination considerations above and beyond what utilities on the mainland need to plan for in storm response, including transporting certain equipment and other resources by boat or airplane and document requirements and clearance processes for mutual aid respondents.

Other sessions within the workshop covered common storm response challenges faced by utilities in any location type, such as common errors in filing for public assistance or financing mutual aid activities, ensuring a smooth incident management process, and new considerations as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a threat.

Many practices shared and discussed revolved around increasing advance communication and getting agreements in place ahead of time with potential mutual aid respondents and vendors, such as barging and shipping companies. Such support and agreements should also be sure to cover travel and transportation to and from the island. Utilities were also advised to have detailed information about ports handy, such as the types of assets available for loading and unloading utility and electric equipment, parking and storage options, and hours of operations and holidays observed.

A financing section of the workshop reviewed recent changes to FEMA’s public assistance guidance, such as new procurement and contracting requirements, closeout policy requirements, grant management cost caps and alternative procedures for permanent work pilot projects.

Different format, expanded scope

Originally planned as an in-person workshop for the Puerto Rico Power Authority, when the event shifted to a virtual format, PREPA and the American Public Power Association decided it would be beneficial to extend the discussion out to the other island territory members.

“Each of our members from island territories – both in the Pacific and the Atlantic – have faced storms that caused significant damage in the past few years. We can all learn from these events and were glad to have the opportunity to connect and share how the public power mutual aid network can grow even stronger for these members who face special circumstances,” said Giacomo Wray, engineering services specialist at APPA.

Nicholas Andersen, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy, participated in the meeting and gave an update about DOE’s efforts. “It was terrific to speak for a few minutes with this group and to hear the subsequent discussions,” he said on a post on LinkedIn. “The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) continues to apply the lessons learned from recent years in our current preparedness and response efforts - and the people of our island communities are the real beneficiary of this partnership!”

Regarding added COVID-19 concerns in conducting storm response this year, the workshop highlighted work practices from the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council’s resource guide, including doing onboarding and briefing calls online or in large outdoor spaces, minimizing the movement of crews, and offering any responding mutual aid crews with details about the virus’ spread locally.

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