Community Engagement
Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Power nearly restored to US Virgin Islands with public power mutual aid

Nearly six months after Hurricane Irma slammed into the U.S. Virgin Islands, power has been restored to 99 percent of eligible customers. Clinton Hedrington, interim executive director and CEO of the USVI Water and Power Authority, said his utility has “loved and embraced” the mutual aid process that supported the restoration.

Two Category 5 hurricanes – Irma and Maria — laid waste to the power system in USVI in September 2017. The Department of Energy noted that as of Jan. 31, 2018, 99 percent of eligible customers and 93 percent of total customers had been restored.

“Right now, we’re relying on customers to call in and say, ‘well, I’m ready for service now at this point, my repairs are made,’” Hedrington said in a Feb. 27 interview with the American Public Power Association. Everyone else who could receive service has been restored.

“We celebrate with our fellow citizens in the U.S. Virgin Islands and commend them for their patience. Restoration has been a well-orchestrated but long and complex process. We are grateful to the mainland public power utilities that answered the call for help,” said Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association.

Crews came from far and wide

Public power crews came from far and wide over the past months to help USVI-WAPA bring power back to the islands. The DOE and the Western Area Power Administration also played key roles in helping with recovery and power restoration efforts.

“The restoration process demonstrates the effectiveness of a strong industry-government partnership. Mutual aid has once again proved invaluable,” noted Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services at the Association. “The restoration process was fraught with challenges as the magnitude of disaster was unprecedented and the terrain posed many access challenges. But they had a plan and worked it,” he explained.

Crews work to restore power (photo courtesy of the Western Area Power Administration)

Mutual aid crews were organized by the Florida Municipal Electric Association and the Northeast Public Power Association.

Public power utility crews also came from South Carolina’s Santee Cooper, Oklahoma’s Grand River Dam Authority and the Nebraska Public Power District.

Several members of the Missouri Public Utility Alliance — Independence Power & Light, City of Harrisonville, Columbia Water & Light, City of Hannibal, and Macon Municipal Utilities —sent mutual aid.

Personnel were deployed from Wisconsin public power utilities — Reedsburg Utility Commission, Two Rivers Water & Light, Marshfield Utilities, Fennimore Utilities, Arcadia Electric Utility, Rice Lake Utilities, and Clintonville Utilities. In addition, personnel from Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin were deployed.

Sam Rozenberg, the Association’s engineering services security manager, noted on Feb. 26 that all public power mutual aid crews have left the USVI, having completed their mission. 

USVI-WAPA “loved and embraced” mutual aid process

The utility appreciated the mutual aid. “We loved and embraced the mutual aid process,” Hedrington said. “I think it was a little new to us, but the assistance from APPA and our sister utilities was outstanding — they treated us like we were one of them.”

“They came to the Virgin Islands with the mission to restore every single customer and give every ounce of support, whether it was project management, linemen, you name it.”

Hedrington singled out the professionalism that the mutual aid folks brought to the restoration effort and thanked all the teams for their help.

Niel Vanterpool, director of transmission and distribution at USVI-WAPA said, “Mutual aid project managers improved our planning, coordination and oversight of restoration efforts as well as reported on progress made toward achieving key restoration milestones.”

The project managers reported during daily operations meetings and served as a crucial source of information for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other federal agencies, and local USVI governmental officials.

Mutual aid emergency line crews “were extremely efficient in terms of the line work and extraordinarily cooperative, focused, and committed to the restoration. Going forward, due to the great experiences we’ve had, USVI-WAPA will certainly seek emergency assistance through the mutual aid process,” Vanterpool said.

Challenges and lessons learned

Vanterpool noted that USVI-WAPA’s electric systems consist of two distinct power plants and electric transmission and distribution systems across four islands, operating at differing voltage levels.  

“This poses various logistical challenges including coordination and oversight of line crews, distribution of equipment and materials, etc.,” Vanterpool said.

With the help of mutual aid line crews, USVI-WAPA achieved and maintained adequate coverage of line crews on all transmission and distribution circuits, which allowed for faster restoration of service to customers in the territory.

“The addition of mutual aid project managers introduced seasoned utility professionals to the Authority’s internal project management team which greatly improved our ability to plan, coordinate, and monitor all emergency restoration activities in the territory,” Vanterpool said.

Hedrington said the utility learned that they could engage with the Association to get more than lineworkers. The logistics of getting help to the island were challenging after the extent of the devastation. “That was a big lesson learned because it took some time for us to understand the process,” Hedrington said.

USVI-WAPA is working with the Association now to make the logistics easier for future events and be prepared contractually to pull the trigger whenever a storm hits and quick response is needed.

No Customer Left Behind

In mid-January, USVI WAPA announced that it would begin a “No Customer Left Behind” campaign on St. Croix and St. Thomas, similar to a prior effort on St. John.

“As the territory-wide restoration effort nears completion, the No Customer Left Behind campaign will allow residents in both districts an opportunity to inform WAPA if they have not yet been restored,” Hedrington said in a Jan. 17 news release.

“This includes customers who are either missing service connections to their weather heads, missing meters, or who were bypassed because their weather head and/or meter base was not ready to be reenergized in previous stages of the restoration,” he added.

Under the campaign, hotline numbers were established and USVI WAPA also allowed customers to text restoration requests.

The customer’s information is collected by a USVI WAPA employee on the island, and then channeled to the appropriate divisions so restoration can be scheduled.

Once a customer makes contact with the No Customer Left Behind hotline, the goal is to restore power to that customer within three days, if all documentation is in order. If not, the customer is contacted and given a projected restoration date.

Hedrington said the campaign has been a big success and the utility has been restoring customers in 24–48 hours.