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Utilities ready for hurricanes — and other forces of nature

When more than 70,000 Mississippi Power customers lost power in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan last September, including 51,000 along the Gulf Coast, the company brought in more than 800 linemen, tree trimmers and support personnel to assist with the restoration effort.

In all, the disaster caused outages to nearly half of Mississippi Power’s customers in 23 southeastern counties in the state. Most of the affected customers along the Gulf Coast had power restored within 48 hours, and most of those in the Meridian area had lights back on within 36 hours. In preparation for the 2005 hurricane season, Mississippi Power employees reviewed storm preparation and restoration plans and held additional training sessions in preparation for upcoming tropical storm activity.

“Storm preparedness is an integral task for any utility serving coastal areas,” said company spokesperson Kurt Brautigam. “Each year brings new threats and possibilities, so you can never let down your guard. Our emergency restoration plans are extensive and we refine them each year. We’re confident we can restore electricity as quickly and safely as we were able to do last year if a storm hits our region again.”

Ice storms and tornadoes taunt TVA

Ron Rogers, vice president of transmission operations and maintenance for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), America’s largest public utility, said the seven-state service area is affected more often by tornadoes and ice storms than hurricanes.

“Our storm preparation and restoration plan is not really based on a time of the year, but rather the weather patterns,” said Rogers. “We have a staff meteorologist who gives us warnings when conditions are favorable for any catastrophic nature, and this may give us a day or two of warning. Sometimes, based on his reports, we’ll postpone work or button up a system early, based on the seriousness of the threat he sees and on the system conditions.”

TVA’s 15 transmission service centers across the Tennessee Valley are divided into three areas. The utility’s transmission emergency plan is set up for emergencies to be handled on a local basis. System wide emergencies are fairly rare, Rogers said.

“The blizzard event of 1993 brought 26 inches of snow to Chattanooga and paralyzed the entire area, and so did a tornado event in the late 1980s or early 1990s that came through North Alabama,” he said. “Those were covered system wide in our emergency plan.”

Storm preparations vary, depending on the scenario. For impending ice storms, TVA might send equipment home with the crews, such as a four-wheel drive, but would not do the same for tornadoes.

“With a tornado, typically you go about business as usual,” said Rogers. “We don’t send crews toward tornados. We wait until they pass. We can do a temporary fix fairly quickly and we keep sufficient material on hand.”

TVA also has in place an aggressive pole replacement program. “A good solid pole often just gets blown over rather than bent and damaged, and if we have good solid poles in place, restoration goes a lot quicker,” explained Rogers.

Like most utility companies, TVA has money set aside for storms, but even with the water damage from last year’s hurricanes, restoration expenses were handled from the regular maintenance budget. In a typical year, $3 million may be categorized as storm losses, compared to $7 billion in revenue. “It’s negligible,” said Rogers.

With two earthquake faults in the Tennessee Valley — New Madrid and Carolina — emergency plans for earthquakes are also foremost in TVA’s system. “You never hear much about earthquakes around here, and we hope to never have to use that part of the emergency plan,” he said.

Entergy prepares for natural threats

Because of the diverse nature of Entergy’s service area, hurricanes, tornadoes, ice and snowstorms or severe thunderstorms are included in the company’s emergency plan.

“While all of these disasters have struck various parts of the four-state Entergy service area in recent years, hurricanes are potentially the largest threat along the Gulf of Mexico,” said Robert Lesley, company spokesperson for Entergy Mississippi. “In such cases, the director of Entergy’s company emergency management team is the person who declares a state of emergency and activates the System Emergency Operations and Restoration Plan.”

To monitor the weather, Entergy contracts with multiple weather vendors to receive special around-the-clock weather statements that forecast conditions for the Entergy system. Much of Entergy Corporation’s storm response for the entire four-state system is coordinated from a facility in Jackson.

Whenever possible, the company uses these forecasts to implement its emergency response plan in advance of the predicted storm. For example, Entergy activated its plan more than a week before Hurricanes Isidore and Lili struck Louisiana in the fall of 2002.

“When severe conditions are predicted, Entergy uses its detailed weather forecasts to predict the impact to the Entergy system,” said Lesley. “For example, forecasts may predict that a hurricane will have sustained winds in excess of 120 miles per hour. Through experience, company personnel are aware of the damage high winds can cause and will mobilize workers based on that knowledge.”

During the Arkansas ice storms of winter 2000, Entergy solicited approximately 10,000 restoration workers from nearly half of the states in the nation.

“At all times during major restoration work, safety is the top priority,” said Lesley. “For that reason, Entergy personnel will seek protection during the height of the storm. Entergy’s ability to restore service is limited during a storm’s approach, while rain and wind gusts are strengthening. Restoration is shut down when conditions become unsafe for workers due to road flooding or sustained gale force winds. During especially strong hurricanes, some frontline workers may be evacuated from the predicted landfall location for their protection. As soon as conditions are safe, workers quickly return to the stricken area to begin restoration.”

When the restoration is completed, restoration crews return to their normal operations, workers return home and the emergency command centers shut down.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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