The power of cooperation
The power of cooperation
Four JCE linemen among those who responded after Hurricane Michael
In the wake of Hurricane Michael, electric cooperatives banded together to provide mutual aid to those affected by the storm. Four Jo-Carroll Energy linemen were among those who responded.
Lineworkers Steve Ludwig and Jeremy Whitmer left from the co-op’s Elizabeth headquarters on Oct. 10 to meet up with fellow linemen Tony Schefsky and Tim Grau from JCE’s Geneseo territory. They were headed for South River EMC in North Carolina where a group had just returned from storm duty following Hurricane Florence less than a month before.
Two hours out of Asheboro, N.C., the four were rerouted to Randolph EMC to aid that cooperative. After two days, the JCE crew was released from Randolph and was reassigned to West Florida Electric Cooperative.
West Florida serves approximately 28,000 meters in four Florida counties; most of those were without power when the crew reported to the co-op’s office in Sneads, Fla.
“When we first started getting into the damaged areas, I thought to myself, this is pretty bad but not what I really expected,” said Schefsky. “Little did I realize we had some distance before we got to the worst, to what was really bad. Once we got to Sneads, got out and took a look did it really hit home how bad it really was.”
Ludwig, who had worked in Georgia following Hurricane Irma, described the aftermath as “by far the worst I’ve been on.”
“Their damage was widespread,” he said. “Every corner you made, every road you went on was nonstop destruction. It wasn’t what we’re used to of fixing one or two problems and energizing the line back.”
While some houses had stood up to the winds, many buildings had roof damage and were covered in tarps; outbuildings were leveled. Much of the damage was caused by downed trees – 80-100 foot tall pine trees that didn’t take the wind.
“Wherever you looked, there were 40-60 acre fields of pine trees mowed over about eight to 10 feet up,” Whitmer said. Grau described it as looking “like someone just came through with a lawnmower and mowed them all off.”
It was those trees that caused about 90% of the damage the crew dealt with. “That’s what really caused their damage,” Ludwig said.
“It wasn’t like a tree knocked down a span, it was multiple poles broken, multiple lines down,” Whitmer added.
In addition to line crews, multiple tree contractors were brought in to aid in the restoration. Work was coordinated so that roads and right-of-way would be cleared ahead of the line crews. Using end loaders and skidders, the contractors moved trees, poles, wires and everything out of the way, creating windrows of debris along the road.
The Jo-Carroll Energy crew was teamed up with four-man crews from Illinois co-ops Adams Electric and RECC, along with a lineman from West Florida. The majority of the work they did was repairing lines.
The crew described one day when they had 12 linemen working together on the same line just to get to the point of energizing that one line. “Some places it was a rebuild, not repair,” Ludwig said.
“We didn’t start at one end of the road and rebuild new the entire way, but it was pretty much at that point,” Ludwig said. “You would either be straightening each pole or replacing them. In some places you didn’t even try to attempt to use the old wire – you just started out with brand new wire going right down the road.”
Crews were working 16-hour days in hot and humid temperatures to turn the lights back on. “A lot of nights you’d lay down at 11 or 12 at be back up at 5,” Ludwig said. “If you got five hours of sleep you were doing pretty good.”
Accommodations for the crews were in tents with cots for sleeping and semi-trailers for showers and laundry. “When things are that bad, that’s what they bring in for you stay,” Ludwig noted. “They make their own accommodations.”
“Tent City was an experience all by itself,” Schefsky said. “But the thing is, you think you’ve got it bad but somebody else has it worse . . . at least you had a shower, a cot and dinner to go back to.”
“The amazing thing is was how coordinated it was,” he added. “You’ve got about 1,300 linemen; you saw semi load after semi load of material come in. It was nothing to see a whole flatbed with nothing but 25kv transformers on it.”
And, with nowhere to buy fuel, that too was brought in. At the end of the day, crews parked their trucks in a long line at the end to be refueled while they were sleeping.
After 15 days, about half of West Florida’s system was still off. The office in Sneads was running on back up generation; tarps covered the windows and roof. Although closed to the members, the co-op was still functioning out the building that had sustained a lot of damage. All agreed the work was not like what they see with storms in Jo-Carroll’s own service territory.
“We’ve never experienced it here, but it was to the point of their own employees were working all the hours, then going home at night to no power,” Ludwig said. “Some were sleeping on air mattresses on the co-op floor just because there was a generator there. Their own employees were in this just like the members were.”
West Florida had made it clear to their membership at the beginning that it could be six to eight weeks until power was restored to all. “When you talk about turning somebody’s life upside down, that was it where we were,” Ludwig said.
As the power came on, members expressed their appreciation to the crews.
“The people were 100 percent appreciative,” Whitmer said.
“We had two different families start to cry they were so happy we were there to get their lights on,” Grau noted. “They didn’t expect their power to come on anytime soon, and we were there to get it back on for them. They were just really appreciative, and they would give you anything they had.”
No matter how badly their homes were damaged, people were still offering the crews what they had – as simple as a bottle of water or oranges picked from trees in their yards. “You felt bad for them when you saw what their places were, and they were still trying to give to us, “Whitmer said. “They were thinking about everybody who was there helping them before themselves.”
Grau related the story of a younger couple with a three-month old daughter who had to ration formula because they had no water. “She came out of the house and is thankful; he’s shaking hands and thanking us. … She said ‘I’ve talked to my husband, and we don’t know what your arrangement are, but we’d like you guys to stay here and get a hot shower and decent night’s rest.’ I thought here’s a couple who had nothing but they don’t get mad at anything, they’re genuine.”
Another WFEC member asked Grau if he was married. When he told her he was, she said ‘God bless your wife. You want to know why? Because your wife and kids are home without you. You’re here. I’m grateful your families are all understanding that you guys are here doing this.’
“Looking back at it, it’s the human element,” Grau said. “You’re helping someone out who’s in need. You never know when that shoe may be on the other foot. It’s probably one of the single most rewarding things you could do.”