Pay it Forward: Irma Disaster Relief

By Matt Skoufalos

On September 11, 2017, approximately 1,000 workers, including 200 full-time Ameren Missouri and Ameren Illinois employees plus assorted contractors, headed to Florida to support their colleagues at Duke Energy on a mutual assistance call.

“When a utility gets hit with a strong storm, they’ll call on neighboring utilities to send on resources to help,” said Jenifer Hagen, Communications Executive for Ameren Missouri. “We were paired with them because we’re similar utilities.”

The storm was strong, all right: it was Hurricane Irma, the most intense storm to hit the mainland of the United States in a decade. The Ameren crews were initially headed out to Orlando, but as Irma’s path veered west, they were rerouted to Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The first wave of workers made it to their target communities by September 12; within a day, a second wave arrived. They remained for weeks to help restore power service to about a million Floridians who’d been without heat and hot water.

When it comes to storm response, the typical first priorities for utility professionals are securing power for first responders, health care systems, and offices of emergency management. From there, they work on restoring service to areas containing the greatest populations. In the wake of Irma, the damage was so widespread that there were outages and damage everywhere. When the storm made landfall in the Florida Keys, it brought winds of 130 miles per hour; although the areas into which the Ameren crews were dispatched were deeper inland, they discovered neighborhoods that had sustained comparable, high-velocity gusts. Downed trees had snapped power lines, utility poles had given way under the force of those winds, and picking through the wreckage of tangled roots and live wires was tedious, dangerous work undertaken in extreme heat and humidity.

“We left Missouri almost wearing long sleeves; here it’s hot,” Hagen said. “Folks have to take lots of breaks, ice off, and stay cool. It’s really exhausting.”

The unfamiliar terrain also complicated things. In their home turf in Missouri, Hagen said Ameren workers had an easier time navigating properties with their trucks; in the Florida communities where they were dispatched, “backyards back up to backyards,” and trees and limbs often needed clearing off before the trucks could make it where they were needed she said.

Through it all, the line workers encountered nothing but hospitality and gratitude, from snacks and cold drinks to a stranger at the laundromat who offered to wash one line worker’s clothes after a long day of work. After shuttling back and forth from hotel to hotel amid Floridians impacted by the largest evacuation in the history of the state, it was a welcome favor.

“Linemen are a special breed,” Hagen said. “They are hard workers. They rise to the challenge. They have a passion about getting the lights on for people. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t their backyard. They’re doing the best they can to restore the quality of life.”

Hagen was one among a number of Ameren staffers and freelance contractors sent to put the lights back on in Florida, and she described the complement of workers involved in the effort as a group of specialists, all “working in their wheelhouse” during the largest mutual aid response in U.S. history.

“There are so many things that go on to get the service back,” Hagen said; “folks who work for safety, logistics, mechanics … the whole gamut of work that is done on a daily basis has to travel with our folks to make sure that it gets done.”

Some of the contractors who traveled to Florida to help restore service had only days earlier been working in Houston, Texas in response to the flooding and damage from Hurricane Harvey, Hagen said. Although Missouri has itself been hit with nine major storms thus far in 2017, companies like Ameren Missouri are frequently called upon to support parallel recovery efforts throughout the Midwest, said Mike Lewis, Superintendent of Reliability Support Services for Ameren Missouri.

“In this situation, all the utilities in Florida made requests of the Southeast Exchange, but because there were not enough linemen, they reached out to the Midwest mutual assistance group,” Lewis said.

The Southeast Exchange is one of seven mutual assistance regions in the United States organized by the Edison Electric Institute. The voluntary collaboration among utilities allows for regional coordination of services in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. Member utilities offer up whatever resources they can provide, which are matched with areas of need; as these agreements synchronize more tightly, their efforts are more increasingly streamlined, he said.

“This is the nature of the utility business,” Lewis said. “Someday we’re going to be in need; there’s a give and take with that. It’s something that’s here to stay and that’s going to be further developed in the future.”

No matter who hits the scene of a cleanup first, all utility companies approach it the same way, Lewis said: preserve life and property as the highest priorities. Whether dealing with heat and humidity, flooding and road closures, or grueling hours, the workers must pick their routes over, around, or through the damage. Regardless of the dangers, Lewis emphasized professionalism and analytical thinking as the foremost skills in the field.

“If there’s anything to emphasize, it’s an effort that’s fraught with hazard,” he said. “Our guys have to be aware and take their time, and sometimes pick the situation apart so they can analyze and mitigate those hazards. They’re more than willing to jump in and help.”

Bill Masters of the Largo, Florida-based BMX-RAY said the help from out of state was warmly received and much welcomed. Trucks of utility workers from as far away as Canada were greeted with honking from their fellow drivers, while locals delivered food and drink to them as they worked in the September heat. Near his business, in Belleair Beach, Masters counted nearly 30 oversized vehicles on the job.

“A lot of the markets down here opened their stores and cooked their own food to give to residents on the beach,” he said. “Gas, power, and food were scarce. There’s so many people helping each other out. For the most part, it really just showed the human spirit.”

Just as the power companies sent help, Masters said he’d gotten calls from his colleagues in the imaging equipment business asking after his health and that of his business.

“Everyone’s helping each other out in the neighborhood,” he said. “I got calls from Tri-Imaging, Technical Prospects, Block Imaging, Beacon International, AllParts Medical, RSTI, Ed Sloan and Associates – people texting us from throughout the industry.”

BMX-RAY was without power for about five days following the storm, Masters said. Although Largo was spared the worst of the damage that hit Miami and Key West, the office was running on generators, and Masters limited its activities to five-hour days to conserve fuel, which was scarce. By the time he could reopen the office the Tuesday after the storm, Masters counted just shy of 170 emails for tech support and parts requests.

Within the first day, they’d shipped nearly 20 parts to locations in need and helped some third-party vendors store and ship their collimators. Yet none of their damage compared to that of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, which Masters said had to shut down a facility after water damage.

Without the outside support of the utility service workers who restored power service, “we would have been down still,” he said. “It is critical.”