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NC Public Power Crews on Providing Mutual Aid During Hurricane Ida

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In late August 2021, as Hurricane Ida was approaching the Louisiana coast, crews from six North Carolina public power communities answered the call for mutual aid. The group of more than 70, including crews from Greenville, High Point, Statesville, Tarboro, Wake Forest, and Wilson, along with three members of the ElectriCities Safety and Training team, headed south, expecting to provide help in Lafayette. But, when Ida shifted east and stalled, they were needed in Houma—and needed badly.

We checked in with some of the crew members to learn a bit more about the experience, what it meant to the Houma community, and what it means to be part of the public power family.

Whether on the job for three years or 30, the crew members we talked to whole-heartedly agree: The damage Hurricane Ida caused in Houma is the worst they’ve seen.

Stanley Roberson, an underground lineman with Greenville Utilities Commission (GUC), has been a lineworker for going on four years and with GUC since January 2021. He said, “As soon as we exited off the interstate to Houma, it looked like airplanes had flown over and dropped bombs on the place.” Stanley said poles were snapped and leaning, and power lines were everywhere. “I’ve never seen brick homes destroyed like that,” he said.

The first family Stanley encountered set the tone. “We stopped in front of a house with a mom, a daughter, and a baby. Their windows were out, and their roof was peeled back. When they saw us, they started crying.”

When the mom asked Stanley about restoring power, he explained that it’s a process and could take a while, but he and the crew were going to try to get it on as soon as possible. She started crying again and asked to hug him. “When she found out we were from Greenville, North Carolina, she started crying even harder because we were so far from home.”

On the way out of town on the last day, Stanley saw that their power was back on. “Coming and helping others, getting power back up, and then seeing them smile when we’re leaving … this is what we love,” he said. “Makes me proud of being a lineman.”

Jamie Bishop has been with the City of Statesville’s electric department for 15 years, serving as crew foreman since June 2021. Even when he provided aid after a Category 5 storm in Florida, he didn’t see as much damage as Houma had. “There was pole after pole after pole down,” he said. “In one place we worked, there were 23 broken poles in a row.”

As the miles-long line of utility trucks from public power providers from North Carolina, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and other areas pulled into Houma, Jamie said, “People were outside clapping and crying and thanking us.”

The devastation, the losses people in the community experienced, and their appreciation for the crews’ help provided lots of motivation as storm recovery dragged on for days. “They were very grateful and humble for us to be there,” he said. “That means a lot, because that’s a long way from home.”

Because of the conditions on the ground, the crew members stayed in hotels two hours away from Houma, driving there and back each day. That meant heading out at 5:00 or 5:30 each morning and getting in as much work as possible before reaching the federally required mutual aid stop time at the 16-hour mark. Adding to the intensity of their days was Gulf Coast weather in August: temperatures in the high 80s to low 90s with over 80% humidity, daily rain, and some rough thunderstorms.

“I’ve never experienced heat like that,” Jamie said. “When you’re sweating at 4:30 or 5 a.m., that’s something else.”

Blaine Stafford, a Level III line technician with seven years’ experience, is in his first year with Wilson Energy. He said what he saw in Houma reminded him of tornado damage he helped clean up in Nashville, Tennessee. But instead of in microbursts, this devastation was widespread. “Everywhere you looked, there were power lines down, transformers on the ground, trees down across the road,” he said. “Ten miles either way it was bad.”

Blaine said support from the Houma community was inspiring and kept the crews energized. “You have people who don’t have a roof outside cooking hotdogs for you,” he said. “If they’re willing to cook you some hotdogs, then you can work that much harder to try to get the ball rolling for them.”

As days drag on, “Pride starts driving you, and you want to get their lives back to normal,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s hot and we’re tired, but we all love what we do, getting to help people and get the lights back on.”

Brian Poythress, electric distribution supervisor with Wilson Energy, has been with the city for 28 years. Driving into Houma was overwhelming, he said. “I didn’t think in the time I was there I’d see a lightbulb come on, but we did.”

That good feeling of getting the lights back on and helping people keeps him motivated. Plus, he says, “We’d need the same type of help if a storm hit here in Wilson. We’re ready to go in a bucket if somebody calls.”

E.J. Burcham, line crew supervisor for the City of High Point who has 18 years in linework, said, “The only thing to compare damage-wise is a tornado. They demolish everything in their path.” And Ida made a very wide path. E.J. said it was about 10 days in before Houma got the first meter turning. “I’ve never been on a storm where it took that long.”

E.J. said one of the things he likes about being on a public power crew is that, as municipal employees, “We’re there representing our city. We take pride in what we do, like we’re building our system at home.”

Recently, when he and his family were on vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, they passed by poles he’d helped repair on a mutual aid call a while back. A proud moment, for sure.

Hugo Mier, powerline supervisor with Wake Forest Power, has been doing linework for 15 years. He has participated in mutual aid several times over those years and said Ida’s impact on Houma is the worst infrastructure damage he has seen. “I’d never seen this many broken poles.”

Even though it took longer than usual to get power back on, with mutual aid, Hugo said, “A lot of the people wouldn’t have had power as quickly as they did if we weren’t there.”

Hugo also appreciates the opportunity mutual aid gives to help communities when they’re in need. “It really is about helping your neighbors,” he said. A woman told him, “I’m always glad to see your trucks coming by because that brings me hope.”

Nick Whitley, one of three ElectriCities senior safety and training specialists traveling with the crews, has been in linework since 1998. Ida’s damage was the worst he has seen in person. “Most of the time you’re going to have a pole or two in good shape, but on one street, every pole was on the ground.”

Telling a story about some moms and kids coming by to hand out bags of cookies while the crews were eating lunch, Nick said, “In a world the news portrays as so bad where nobody gets along, you see a different side altogether. These people have been devastated, but they’re thinking of you and you’re thinking of them. We have a common goal.”

Ross Whitehurst, another ElectriCities senior safety and training specialist, has a lot of mutual aid experience, having served in Tarboro’s electric department for 20 years and with ElectriCities for going on two. “I’ve seen tornados, ice, and hurricanes, and this was the worst of all,” he said. “When you see brick walls blown down, that was some wind.”

“I’ve never experienced people who were as nice as they were in Louisiana,” said Ross with ElectriCities. Every crew member we spoke with shared that sentiment. They told stories of people offering hugs, water, treats, and lots of meals, including lots of jambalaya. They even provided some help with laundry.

What makes it all worthwhile, he said, is when small kids and older adults thank you, offering whatever food and water they have. “Half their house is blown away and they’re offering you what they have,” he said. One day, some kids came by with a tray of cheeseburgers they’d cooked. “When you have 7-year-old girl asking you if you’re hungry and offering you a cheeseburger, you’ll work the rest of your life.”

Ross also said, “One of the reasons everybody in North Carolina rushes to the aid of everybody else is because we’ve been in this position.”

For Tarboro’s electric service crew leader, Cameron Johnson, having lost everything in Hurricane Floyd makes helping other storm victims more meaningful. A lineman with the town for 13 years, he said, “I like to be able to help people in those situations. Seeing how much they’ve lost and knowing just one little bit that we can help means a lot.”

Kenny Roberts, Supervisor of Safety & Training and Mutual Aid coordinator at ElectriCities, said: “The public power community has a long history of stepping up whenever the call for assistance comes in. When Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana, mutual aid was once again a shining example of the value of public power in the communities we serve. As always, the public power crews from North Carolina combined forces to support the Houma community’s recovery and help keep everyone safe. Lineworkers, just like firefighters, police officers, and EMS personnel, are essential to a community rebuilding after a major event like Hurricane Ida.”

The crews recently received Mutual Aid Commendations from APPA for their efforts in Houma. While much appreciated, we’re betting they didn’t need any awards to feel like winners.

 

 

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