Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

VI WAPA/Association workshop reviews hurricane lessons learned

The U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (VI WAPA) and the American Public Power Association held a storm preparedness and resilience workshop August 23-24 in St. Thomas, VI.

The event — supported by a grant from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response — highlighted lessons learned and improvement opportunities in the wake of the 2017 hurricane season during which the U.S. Virgin Islands were hit by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes (Irma and Maria) that completely devastated their electric system.

Event participants included VI WAPA leadership, staff and governing board members; Association mutual aid team members; mutual aid responders; and representatives of DOE; the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA).

Through panel discussions, roundtables, and workshop activities, the group looked back at restoration efforts during the 2017 hurricane season to highlight successes and flag opportunities for process improvement.

The group discussed the myriad logistics involved in restoring an island territory in the wake of a major disaster and noted improvement opportunities in the areas of:

  • Mutual aid deployment and billeting;
  • Investing in critical infrastructure (including strategic undergrounding of transmission and distribution lines);
  • Shipping, storing and staging materials;
  • Communications across the islands and with the mainland; and
  • Pre-storm contracting (with utilities, contractors, port authorities and others).

“The stake is in the ground right now at about a hundred days. That’s what we did, and that was really fantastic,” said VI WAPA Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer. “But we are here today to figure out how we can do it better, quicker and get power restored. That’s what we’re here today to try and figure out.”

From Left to Right: APPA Senior VP of Engineering Services Mike Hyland, Clinton Hedrington, VI WAPA COO for Electric Systems, DOE's Matt Duncan, FEMA's Rob Hutchinson, Mona Barnes, Director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency and Elmo Roebuck, director of the Virgin Islands Energy Office.

“We had the largest deployment of electric utility workers in the history of the United States last year,” said Mike Hyland, the Association’s Senior Vice President of Engineering Services. “What can we do better? What can we do to harden, to be more resilient, more reliable? What can we do to be better safety-wise? What can we do to be better at customer focus and customer service? And that doesn’t happen magically. It happens because of workshops like these.”

VITEMA Director Mona Barnes highlighted the tremendous hurdle of getting hit by consecutive Category 5 storms, saying “your ‘worst case scenario’ is never the worst.” But she went on to point out the critical nature of planning for the future.

“What we choose to discuss in this room today is going to affect this territory maybe 20 or 25 years from now when that next ‘worst scenario’ comes,” she said.