Powering Strong Communities
Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Utility crews are on the move as Category 5 Hurricane Irma approaches US

Everyone on the Virgin Islands, and most electricity customers in Puerto Rico, appeared to be in the dark on Thursday, Sept. 7 after Hurricane Irma passed through the islands. As damage assessments began on those islands, people and power companies in Florida and other areas of the East Coast watched the Category 5 hurricane apprehensively as it moved closer to the U.S. mainland.

Mutual aid crews have been gathering this week from far-flung states, setting up camp in strategic staging areas. In many cases, electric utilities — whether from the private, public power, or rural cooperative sector — held off on where to deploy the crews, however, until more is known about exactly where help will be needed.

“We have been very actively preparing for Hurricane Irma,” said Amy Zubaly, executive director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association, in an interview with the American Public Power Association on Thursday. “The charge from our governor is to pre-stage, pre-stage, pre-stage.”

“This storm is the strongest one ever recorded in the Atlantic,” so careful preparations are very important, Zubaly said.

Hurricane Matthew, which caused heavy damage in Florida last year, never made landfall in the state and was a weaker storm, she noted. Irma is currently expected to make landfall as a Category 4 storm, one step down from its current rating of Category 5.

“We are pulling in crews, using APPA and the Mutual Aid Playbook,” Zubaly said. “I can’t begin to express my appreciation for all of the help” that has been offered, she added.

Crews coming from many states

Mutual aid crews are either “en route or preparing to be en route” from Texas, Nebraska Oklahoma, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and New England, she said.

Zubaly did not have precise figures on the numbers of mutual aid workers on the way, but said they include hundreds of public power people from many states. Including contractors, the mutual aid crews likely number in the thousands, she said.

As of Thursday, the crews headed to Florida were scheduled to be sent to the following public power communities: Homestead, Clewiston, Kissimmee, Orlando, Fort Pierce, New Smyrna Beach, Gainesville, Lakeland, and Lake Worth. Homestead was leveled by Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, in 1992.

FMEA has its headquarters in Tallahassee, on the edge of Irma’s forecast cone, Zubaly said.

“We should be fine here,” she said, though tropical force winds are projected for Tallahassee.

The Florida Keys are likely to be hit first, but no mutual aid crews can be sent there yet because the area has been evacuated – and because no one knows for sure yet where Irma will make landfall. “Once the storm makes landfall, we’ll be able to assign crews,” Zubaly said.

People who live in the Keys, including residents of Key West served by public power utility Keys Energy Services, have been ordered to evacuate.

Irma’s winds fell slightly, to 175 mph

As of Thursday afternoon, Irma’s winds had weakened a little bit to 175 mph – less than its peak winds of 185 mph but still a ferocious storm.

Hurricane force winds start at 74 mph, and hurricanes earn a Category 5 rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale – the highest possible rating – when their winds reach 157 mph. In a webpage listing the hurricane scale categories, NASA noted that Category 5 hurricanes have winds “similar, or close, to the speed of some high-speed trains.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, Irma was moving to the west-northwest at 16 mph and was expected to turn north by the weekend, though exactly where it will make landfall, and where it will go after that, are question marks. Most forecasts put the storm on a path to hit Florida, perhaps going right up the middle of the state. Others suggest it could make landfall in the Carolinas.

Florida’s governor declared a state of emergency in all of the state’s 67 counties. The governors of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina declared states of emergency in their states on Wednesday. On Thursday, Georgia's governor expanded the state of emergency there to 30 counties.

Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands

Irma swirled over the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday and its eye passed just north of Puerto Rico. As of Thursday, the electricity systems on all of those islands were severely affected. It appeared that the power systems on St. Thomas and St. John in the Virgin Islands had 100 percent of their customers blacked out, either because of damage or because the systems had been de-energized.

In Puerto Rico, 1.1 million customers, or 69 percent of customers, had no electricity after the hurricane clipped the island. Ricardo Ramos, CEO of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, said the utility was planning to send helicopters out on Thursday to assess the damage to PREPA’s transmission lines.

Rick McKinley, who is chair of APPA’s Mutual Aid Working Group, said that the public power mutual aid coordinators will be trying something new with this storm: using a Google Docs spreadsheet to keep track of which utilities are sending help, and which ones are receiving mutual aid crews.

McKinley, a distribution engineer with Kirkwood Electric Department in Kirkwood, Mo., said this system will create “a live action document” that will show who is going where.

“I’m just thrilled with the opportunity to sit back and watch the chess game” as the pieces move around, McKinley said Thursday. He said he hopes that using the spreadsheet will make it easier for everyone involved to keep up to date on what’s going on, and will also make it easier to see exactly what is needed at any given time.

Perhaps, by looking at the big picture, he will notice a way to make the mutual aid crews’ job easier – “that’s what I’m hoping to provide,” he said.

What should people do to prepare?

“As we get ready for the impacts of Hurricane Irma, we encourage Floridians to do the same. Get a plan and be prepared,” said the FMEA’s Zubaly, in a note on the association’s website.

People in areas that could be hit by the hurricane should make sure to have water, Zubaly said on Thursday. It doesn’t have to be bottled water – it can be tap water, stored in whatever containers are on hand, or in the bathtub. Zip lock bags can be used, she said.

Basic preparedness steps include making sure you have any important papers (protected in zip lock bags), batteries, flashlights and a battery-operated radio. Cell phones should be kept charged, she said. It’s also a good idea to make extra ice and stockpile it, she noted.

Since most people have mobile phones, FMEA has encouraged public power utilities to communicate with their customers using those devices, Zubaly said.
“Our members are posting preparedness tips on social media,” she said.

Forecasts on Thursday afternoon called for Irma to make landfall in Florida at about 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, and to depart the state on Monday morning, she said.

Updated forecast underlines threat to Florida

In an update at 5 p.m. on Thursday, the National Hurricane Center said, “It has become more likely that Irma will make landfall in southern Florida as a dangerous major hurricane, and bring life-threatening storm surge and wind impacts to much of the state.”

A storm surge watch is in effect for portions of South Florida and the Florida Keys, and this means "there is the possibility of life-threatening inundation from rising water moving inland from the coastline during the next 48 hours in these areas,” said the update.

“There is a chance of direct impacts in portions of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, but it is too early to specify the magnitude and location of these impacts,” the 5 p.m. update said.