Power companies stay prepared for storms in wake of Sally

By John Underwood / john@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 9/17/21

SUMMERDALE — One year later, residents in Baldwin County are continuing to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sally, while keeping an eye out for developing storms.

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Power companies stay prepared for storms in wake of Sally

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SUMMERDALE — One year later, residents in Baldwin County are continuing to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sally, while keeping an eye out for developing storms.

While crews with Baldwin County’s largest electric distributors stand ready to respond in the event of another storm or assist in other areas, officials say, Hurricane Sally changed the way storms are viewed.

“Our crews are always ready to respond,” said Mark Ingram, vice president of Corporate Services with Baldwin EMC. “When Hurricane Sally hit, it had been 16 years since we had a major storm hit the area and obviously a lot of things changed during that time. This was also a very different storm than Hurricane Ivan 16 years ago.”

Ingram estimates that Hurricane Sally caused a total of $42 million in damage, compared to $22 million in damages caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

“In order to compare Sally with Ivan, we have to look at both storms,” Ingram said. “With Ivan, we knew we were going to have a major hurricane and we were able to prepare for that. With Sally, we knew we were going to get some of the storm, but we went to bed that night thinking we had a fast-moving tropical storm on our hands and before we knew it, Sally slowed down to two miles an hour and we were dealing with a major storm.”

More than 79,000 of the company’s 80,000 customers experienced a loss of power from the storm. That includes an estimated 4,297 trees on lines, 2,000 broken poles, 1,238 broken crossarms and 4,160 span of line down, Ingram said. During Ivan, EMC lost 55,000 meters.

“Basically, we had 97 percent of our meters without power following Hurricane Sally,” he said. “Our goal from the beginning after the hurricane was to restore power and get our customers back to the point where they could start rebuilding.”

It took about 10 days to get 100 percent of the system restored, Ingram said.

“We identified where lines were sagging, where transformers needed to be fixed or replaced and where poles needed to be up-righted or replaced,” he said.

In addition to Baldwin EMC employees, nearly 1,400 additional line workers from 93 cooperatives spanning 12 states were called in to assist.

Every year, Ingram said, the company prepares a disaster plan and goes through mock drills to get crews ready to respond.

“We want to ensure that everybody knows what their roles are and how best to fulfill those roles,” Ingram said.

It is normal policy, Ingram said, after a major storm to come back and assess the company’s response to a storm.

“It’s like a coach following a big game. You want to go through what went right and what your team needs improvement, implementing changes where necessary,” he said. “Every year, we make a game plan, a playbook if you will, for procedures for preparing for a storm. This year we decided to go back through the procedures, page by page, department by department, policy by policy, and see what we can do to better prepare for a storm and put our people where they need to be.”

One of the biggest changes, Ingram said, is how storms are viewed.

“Now any time a storm comes into the Gulf, we assess that storm and prepare as if we are going to have a major storm that could have major impacts on our area,” he said. “We make sure we have everything in place to assess and repair damage after the storm.”

In the 16 years since Ivan, Ingram said, there were a lot of lessons learned to increase efficiency in ensuring everybody is in the right position and knows what their responsibilities are to properly assess needs.

“One of the things we did during Sally that worked well is that we set up base camps, one at OWA and one at North Baldwin which were run by an outside vendor that basically took care of all of their needs, made sure they had meals, water, snacks, anything they might need,” Ingram said. “These were self-sufficient areas that those needs were taken care of so all we had to do was make sure they had what they needed to restore power to our customers.”

Another thing that was looked at following the storm is communications between EMC and its customers.

“We want to make sure our customers stay informed,” he said. “During Sally we had morning and evening assessments that were sent to members, we gave daily updates through television and radio media and we were constantly updating our social media.

“We found that was a process that went very well, and we are always looking for ways to improve our system to better serve our customers. We believe we did a good job of keeping our customers informed throughout the restoration process.”

EMC has had a system in place for a number of years to report outages. Customers can report outages one of three ways: by calling to report during regular hours or operators are on call 24 hours a day 7 days a week to receive calls; or outages can be reported via text or through EMC’s website and through Facebook.

Miles McDaniel, manager of public affairs with Riviera Utilities, said communication was also key for the company in restoring all of its 51,000 customers that lost power following the storm.

“One of the things we did is to set up a command center that is staffed 24/7 during storm season to monitor any storms that come through and put out alerts on social media,” he said. “Most likely the command center will be set up to do interviews in the event a major storm occurs. We want to continue to have a social media presence, continue to maintain Facebook and Twitter sites to put out information as it becomes available.”

With the help of mutual aid agreements Riviera was able to call in over 400 additional crew members from 17 different assisting agencies in Alabama, Louisiana and Florida, McDaniel said, restoring power to 90 percent of its customers within eight days.

“We had some smaller pockets with individual outages that took almost as long to restore as some of the major outages,” he said. “One thing we need to stress is that nobody wants the lights to come back on more than our employees who are working 18-hour days away from their families. Our number one priority is to get power restored as quickly and safely as possible.”

Riviera also went through an assessment period following the storm, McDaniel said.

“We work with all of our departments to prepare, making sure we have the equipment and proper procedures in place to have everyone where they need to be in the event of another major storm,” he said. “We have all of our mutual contracts in place, and we’ve gone through all of our procedures to make sure we are prepared to have power restored as quickly as possible while keeping our people safe.”

Riviera also has an outage reporting system where customers can call 24 hours a day or access online, McDaniel said.

While McDaniel said Riviera’s system has been completely restored following the storm, EMC is continuing to work to bring its system back to the point it was before Sally, Ingram said.

“During the fourth quarter of 2020 a total damage assessment was done to the entire system,” Ingram said. “We hired an outside firm to go through the entire system to identify what needed to be restored, including leaning poles, damaged exterior lights and sagging lines, anything that needed to be repaired to get our customers back to full restoration.”

EMC has hired an outside firm to come in and begin the restoration process, which started in September of this year and should be completed by the spring of 2022.

“Of course, should we have another storm, that process might be delayed, but it will be an ongoing process for the next several months,” Ingram said. “Most of our customers won’t notice any change. Power has been completely restored and their lights are working, but we are continuing the process of getting our system back to what it was before Hurricane Sally.”

EMC has also applied for FEMA reimbursement to help recover the cost of damages caused by the storm, Ingram said.

“So far we have not received any reimbursement from FEMA,” he said. “Our hope is that we will receive FEMA money, but there is no guarantee with that. We are moving forward to restore reliable service to our customers and hopefully we will be able to get some of that cost back.”