Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Public power utilities work together in response to Tropical Storm Florence

Public power utilities in the Carolinas on Sept. 13 began to grapple with an initial wave of power outages, heavy rainfall and severe flooding caused by Tropical Storm Florence, which made landfall earlier in the day.

But in the days leading up to Florence’s arrival, mutual aid activities were already well underway. Public power utilities from several states sent crews to the Carolinas to help with restoration efforts.

Florence made landfall at 7:15 a.m. on Sept. 14 near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The center of Florence was expected to move inland, across extreme southeastern North Carolina and extreme eastern South Carolina through the weekend, DOE said.

Florence was forecast to produce an additional 20 to 25 inches of rain across southeastern coastal North Carolina and far northeastern South Carolina, with isolated totals of up to 40 inches, DOE said.

Five to ten inches of rain was expected in other parts of South Carolina, North Carolina and southwest Virginia, with pockets of up to 15 inches, according to DOE.

In an update released at 4:00 p.m. EDT on Sept. 16, the DOE said that the following outages had been reported as of 3:00 p.m. EDT: North Carolina: 660,314 customer outages (13.3%), a decrease of 3.52% since the last report issued earlier in the day, South Carolina: 44,598 customer outages (1.8%), a decrease of 18.4% since the last report issued earlier in the day.

The DOE said in the afternoon report that crews in the impacted area had begun to perform damage assessments and restorations as the weather and flooding permit.

Utilities reported that significant progress had been made in restoring power to customers in North and South Carolina on Sept. 16; “however, additional outages have been reported as the storm moves across the western portions of Carolinas and Virginia,” the DOE said.

Utilities were expected to begin to provide initial estimated restoration timelines early this week and DOE is working with utilities on access and routing to impacted areas.

Crews have been unable to operate in heavily flooded areas or when wind speeds are over 30 MPH, DOE said.

South Carolina

South Carolina’s Santee Cooper reported that more than half of its customers who lost power due to Hurricane Florence were restored as of Sept 15. Crews will continue their work through the weekend, supported by additional crews arriving from Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and Missouri, it said.

Santee Cooper’s transmission crews restored all customer delivery points by 3 p.m. Sept. 15. Florence interrupted transmission service to 21 delivery points, including those serving several of electric cooperatives serving northeastern South Carolina. With customer service restored, transmission crews are now addressing additional damage on the system, Santee Cooper said.

Distribution crews restored power to more than half of the retail customers impacted by Florence, starting the day with 50,310 outages and reporting 21,841 outages as of 3:30 p.m. Most of those remaining outages are in the North Myrtle Beach area. Santee Cooper line crews were expected to be joined by 50 contract crews in the morning of Sept. 15 to continue the restoration effort. 

The City of Rock Hill, S.C., has seen a few outages near the coast but they are bracing for the worst with forecasts of rain and flooding. Jimmy Bagley, the city's utility director and also one of the American Public Power Association mutual aid network coordinators from South Carolina, told Public Power Daily that they have employees and equipment on standby.

The city’s utility has been in touch with its counterparts in North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia for about a week now. Mutual aid crews have been staged nearby so they can come in quickly when the area needs power restoration.

“This disaster is different because of the slow hurricane. The flooding is going to be the big part,” said Bagley. He is afraid I-95 could close and the back roads are already flooding — this makes it hard to get heavy restoration equipment to the right places. “We want to help people but it’s about safety first. We will be cautious and protect our workers first,” he added.

North Carolina

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, ElectriCities of North Carolina polled its member communities approximately mid-day on Sept. 14 and at that time, “we had close to 27,000 outages across North Carolina public power communities, with the majority of them being in the City of New Bern (21,126 as of 1:45 p.m.),” said Michelle Vaught, vice-president of corporate communications for ElectriCities of North Carolina, in an email sent to Public Power Daily.

“Since Hurricane Florence has made landfall, high winds have been hindering the restoration process, but once it’s safe to do so, crews will be out restoring power to our customers. We’re asking for patience on the part of our customers. As soon as it’s safe, rest assured, crews will be working hard to turn the lights back on,” Vaught said in the email.

“We’re deploying crews to affected areas where possible. We’re also identifying special equipment needs of our member communities and trying to address those needs,” Vaught added.

With respect to out-of-state crews assisting ElectriCities of North Carolina, she provided the following list of public power entities:

  • Lafayette Utilities System (Louisiana)
  • Huntsville Utilities (Alabama)
  • Leesburg, Fla.
  • Bushnell, Fla.
  • Mount Dora, Fla.
  • Tennessee Valley Public Power Association (Greenville Light & Power, Athens Utility Board, Tullahoma Utilities Authority, Murfreesboro Electric, Memphis Light, Gas & Water, Jackson Energy Authority)
  • ElectriCities of Georgia (Albany, Newnan, Calhoun, Acworth, Deep South, Opelika). In a Facebook post, ElectriCities of Georgia reported that on Sept. 13 it had seven crews staging in Wilson, N.C.

In a Sept. 16 update on Twitter, ElectriCities of North Carolina said that it was currently showing close to 25,000 outages across North Carolina public power communities. “Crews from your towns, along with our mutual aid partners, are working tirelessly to get the lights back on as quickly and safely as possible,” it said in the tweet.

New Bern hit with severe flooding

The City of New Bern, N.C, has been hit with severe flooding. In an article posted on its website, NBC News reported on Sept. 14 that more than 300 people “were rescued from their flood-water-surrounded homes in a storm-ravaged city about a hundred miles north of where Hurricane Florence made landfall Friday, but emergency officials were still fielding a slew of calls from stranded residents.”

The New Bern Department of Public Utilities reported that more than 50 percent of electricity customers have had their power restored from the 99 percent of customers that initially faced power outages. The utility expected to have additional customers brought online the morning of Sept. 15.

Huntsville Utilities crews departed early in the week

Todd Long, electronic content administrator with Alabama’s Huntsville Utilities, said that Huntsville Utilities sent 12 employees to North Carolina, all of whom volunteered to make the trip. The team left Huntsville around noon on Sept. 11 in five trucks and also took several cases of water to assist with relief efforts.

They arrived in La Grange, North Carolina, which is about an hour away from the coast, on the evening of Sept. 12. They met with other utility workers and began coordinating their efforts for after the storm made landfall.   

Crews checked in with Huntsville Utilities on the morning of Sept. 14 and reported they were working in heavy rain and winds of about 50 miles per hour, with worsening conditions expected around noon Eastern Time.

TVA pre-positioned crews and helicopters in N.C.

The Tennessee Valley Authority on Sept. 14 said it had pre-positioned line crews and helicopters in North Carolina to support restoration efforts following Florence. TVA’s River Forecast Center is also managing the increased water flows that will impact the Tennessee River system from Florence’s rainfall, it noted.

“About 80 TVA transmission construction personnel are staged in Hickory, North Carolina, near Charlotte to support power restoration to customers in the Duke Energy service area,” said TVA Senior Manager Transmission Lines Bret Renfroe at the end of the week. “We can call on additional personnel to support restoration efforts if needed.”

Along with the transmission personnel are 60 trucks and construction equipment, two helicopters, pilots, mechanics and TVA Police support.

Crews from Tennessee’s Murfreesboro Electric Department headed out the morning of Sept. 13 to North Carolina in advance of Florence. They will assist the city of Wilson with storm restoration needs.

Florida's JEA, KUA, Keys Energy Services and OUC also pitching in to help

Florida public power utilities Keys Energy Services and Kissimmee Utility Authority were also pitching in to help with restoration efforts.

A five-person crew from Keys Energy Services in Florida left home Friday morning to respond to a mutual aid call from Orangeburg Utilities in South Carolina.

Lynne Tejeda, General Manager and CEO of Keys, says the lineworkers were eager to go help other utilities in need and repay the kindnesses they received when Keys was battered by Irma last year. “It means a lot to our lineworkers. It’s fulfilling when they can help others,” Tejeda said. Lineworkers who have been through many storms are eager to share their experience to support others in the work of restoring power. “So many of our lineworkers wanted to go, it was hard to pick,” she said.

Tejeda also said that the nature of Florence reminds her of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. During that event, Keys suffered intense flooding from storm surges. While power was restored quickly after the outages, the community suffered much longer because of water damage. “Florence may turn out to be similar,” Tejeda said.

Chris Gent, vice-president of corporate communications at KUA, said KUA received its mutual aid assignment late in the day on Sept. 14 to Bennettsville, South Carolina.

KUA on Sept. 15 said that utility crews from KUA were en route to Bennettsville to help restore power in an area devastated by Florence.

KUA sent 10 linemen, a convoy of eight vehicles and several thousand pounds of supplies to assist the Bennettsville Utility Department with the restoration of electricity. The city has approximately 9,000 residents.

“Mutual aid is at the heart of what we do as a public power utility,” said Aaron Haderle, Manager of T&D Operations at KUA. “It’s about neighbors helping neighbors -- even if that 'neighbor' is a sister utility located hundreds of miles away.”

He added, “After Hurricane Irma ravaged our state in 2017, we received mutual aid assistance in Kissimmee from 32 different municipal utilities that traveled from Minnesota and Wisconsin. We’re glad we are able to pay it forward this year and help another community during its hour of need.”

Meanwhile, Florida’s Orlando Utilities Commission on Sept. 14 in a tweet said it had a crew of 18 line techs and fleet personnel ready to leave Orlando to head to South Carolina to help restore power following Florence.

And crews from Florida public power utility JEA on the morning of Sept. 15 departed for South Carolina to assist in restoration efforts, JEA said in a tweet, which included a video of JEA trucks heading out to provide assistance.

Association has reached out to member utilities

The American Public Power Association has been in touch with member utilities and joint action in the affected regions and stands ready to mobilize emergency power restoration crews and materials through the national public power mutual aid network, as requested by affected entities. The Association’s Mutual Aid Team has been having conference calls with its Mutual Aid Working Group to prepare for this storm since Monday, September 10.

The Association has also been working round the clock with the rest of the energy industry and federal government partners to monitor the situation and organize help as needed.

For the latest updates on Florence, go to the Association’s new storm center webpage.