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In tragedy’s wake, Coast Electric turns the lights back on

When the last of Hurricane Katrina blew north, every one of Coast Electric Power Association’s 70,000 members was in the dark. Katrina’s torrential winds had put down approximately 30,000 poles and 10,000 transformers in the company’s system, so while the National Guard dispatched soldiers to hard-hit areas, Coast Electric amassed an army of its own — more than 3,200 crew members and support staff from 19 states and 125 companies to help restore power.

Working 19 hours a day, living in tent cities, the linemen restored power to 100% of Coast Electric’s remaining customers, three weeks to the day Katrina hit. As a rural electric cooperative, it was an exhausting task. The company maintains more than 5,900 miles of power line, “and you might have five miles of line to serve two customers,” said Coast Electric spokesman Ron Barnes.

When they were finished, they had used more than six million feet of line to restore power to the 60,000 members who could get their power back on. Coast Electric serves homes and businesses in some of the hardest hit areas — Hancock, Harrison and Pearl River counties — and in many cases, there was only a slab left, or a home so damaged it was inhabitable.

With the abundance of manpower, Coast Electric had accomplished a monumental task, even as local workers dealt with their own personal tragedies. Of Coast Electric’s 225 employees, 80 lost their homes and just about everyone else sustained damage.

Even though there was a mandatory evacuation, some employees decided to stay, putting their own lives in peril. Some swam out of their houses and caught boats or climbed to safety in trees. One service man stayed on his roof for two days until help arrived. Others took refuge in Coast Electric’s offices. Fortunately, the company did not lose a single employee, and when it was over, some homeless employees and their families lived in the company’s offices until they could make other arrangements.

“Even though I was affected by the storm personally, my focus was bringing power back to my community. I worked from dusk until dawn to restore power to members,” said Coast Electric serviceman Maurice Necaise.

Immediately after the hurricane hit, the company was relieved to see help arrive as thousands of workers came in from other states, but housing so many workers in an inhabitable place proved a challenge. The company set up a tent city in front of its damaged Gulfport office for approximately 500 people, where they fed them, washed their laundry and provided portable showers. Another site was set up in Kiln, and more workers were housed in Picayune in two churches and a food warehouse. The company had also managed to snare 200 hotel rooms. Each day, Coast Electric served more than 8,500 meals and washed over 1,500 pounds of laundry to keep the crews going.

Coast Electric expects to add more customers as people begin to rebuild and as some homeowners who were close to the water move further inland, north of Interstate 10.

“A lot of people are going to move north of I-10, including myself,” said Barnes, who lost his own home in Jackson County.

At press time, the company had retained a couple hundred workers from other states who are rebuilding the lines into Pearlington, Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Lakeshore, the most devastated areas of Coast Electric’s customers. Workers are readying the infrastructure so that people will have power when they rebuild. Others with less damage must be approved by an electrician before the company can restore power.

As for Coast Electric, the company is rebuilding as well. The Biloxi office was wiped out and the engineering building in Bay St. Louis was heavily damaged. Luckily, the other offices are fully operational.

“It’s a real testament to our workforce,” said Barnes, who rode out the storm in the company’s Gulfport office to escape the flooding. “We pulled together so we could get power restored.”

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.

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