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In days after Katrina, Howard faced formidable task

Laurel — In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mississippi Power surveyed the damage that would have to be repaired before power could be restored to its 195,000 customers: more than 1,000 miles of lines down, 9,000 poles damaged or destroyed and 2,400 transformers out of service.

Fortunately for Mississippi Power and its customers (and for the customers of power associations in South Mississippi), the world’s largest transformer manufacturing plant, Howard Industries, is located in Laurel, in the midst of Mississippi Power’s Meridian-to-the-Coast service area.
Howard had lost power August 29, the day Katrina struck, but being on Mississippi Power’s priority list, Howard had power the next day.

What Howard didn’t have was its full work force. Covered by trees, limbs and debris, many Laurel streets and most Jones County roads were blocked but, by August 31, 25% of Howard’s employees had reported for work.

The task that Howard faced was formidable.

“We manufactured some 40,000 to 50,000 transformers on emergency orders,” according to Michael Howard, head of the transformer division. “Normally, it would take four to five months to fill so many orders. But we did it in five or six weeks by working two 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.”
(Almost all of Howard’s employees had reported for work by the Tuesday after Labor Day, which was a week after power was restored to the plant.)

In addition to Mississippi Power, Howard manufactured transformers for Dixie Electric Power Association (EPA), Pearl River EPA, Singing River EPA and Southern Pine EPA, all in Mississippi, and for Entergy and Central Louisiana Power Co. in Louisiana.

“They were all mostly Howard customers, so they pretty much depended on us.”

Howard indicated that they were still making transformers for victims of Hurricane Rita — Entergy and, in Texas, Counterpoint.

The bulk of the transformers made under emergency orders were single phase pole-type transformers, Howard said. Other types included three-phase padmount transformers.

When power was restored to Howard, one of the plant’s first actions was to provide generators for two gas stations near the plant and for Burroughs Diesel. These provided fuel only for Howard and for its employees, so they could get to work.

“We also had to provide food and and 100,000 bottles of water for our employees,” said Howard. “Because we own a trucking company, there was no problem making deliveries.”
The Howard transportation division operates some 200 tractor-trailers, both as a common carrier and to haul Howard’s products. It also runs a commodities business.

When many of the Howard workers finished their shifts at the plant, they moved to the gas stations where they pumped gas for their fellow workers.

“I want to thank our employees for their hard work and dedication, even though many of them suffered serious damage to their homes,” said Howard. “I’m thankful that we could help our customers in their time of need. Our employees persevered.”

“Howard did everything we asked,” according to Kurt Brautigam, a spokesperson for Mississippi Power. “They were a big part of our being able to restore power to all of our customers who were able to receive power within 12 days. They did a wonderful job and were very accommodating.”

Mississippi Power had a number of primary customers that first got power, in addition to Howard. These included hospitals, public service agencies, media outlets and city governments.

All the emergency transformers — these are oil-filled, electrical transformers — that Howard manufactured were distribution transformers, built in the plant that replaced the original one that opened in 1969. That was in a building in the Laurel Airport Industrial Park that consisted of 50,000 square feet. There were 30 employees.

Today, the distribution transformer plant is 1.6 million square feet, which is some 43 acres. Howard has customers in all 50 states and 114 countries. There are six million Howard transformers in service around the world.

Transformers are built as orders come in and custom-designed for each customer. Howard makes all of its own parts and only raw materials are bought from outside the company.

In addition to the single-phase pole-type and three-phase padmount transformers made for the emergency orders, the plant also manufacturers three-phase pole-type, single-phase padmount, subsurface-type, step-down-type transformers and unit substations.

The new transformer plant that opened earlier this year makes an entirely different — and much bigger — type of transformer. These include substation transformers for generation plants, large substations and similar locations to step- down voltage so that the electricity can be used in homes and businesses.

Howard’s new facility also manufactures network transformers that, according to Michael Howard, head of the transformer division, go under the ground and connect together electrically on the secondary side. On a normal transformer, they’re connected on the primary side.

This plant, some 200,000 square feet, can produce power transformers up to 300,000 pounds, so heavy that they have to be transported by rail.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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