One of the best things about writing the editorial for the mag is the journey of discovery I often find myself on during the research and preparation phases. It never ceases to impress me how selfless people become in response to calamities. I’m speaking of the kicking laid on the Eastern Seaboard of our neighbour to the south by some of the most powerful hurricanes in recorded history and the willingness of so many people to pitch in and help. This time the culprit is Sandy.
I think of how fortunate I am to sit at my computer in a city supported by a first-rate infrastructure that boasts an impressive record of delivering electric power. It’s hard to remember the last major hurricane to really wallop us. It was in October 1954 and was, after the fact, classified as two hurricanes – Hazels I and II. While it`s true we get heavy rains in summer and snow and ice in the winter, seldom have most of us ever had to stare down the throat of a monster like Sandy, Irene, Camille or Katrina.
Average people routinely do above average good deeds. For six days in January 1998, freezing rain coated Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and parts of the Northeastern U.S. with up to 11 centimetres of ice. Trees, wires, poles, and transmission towers came crashing down putting over 4.7 million in Canada and some 500,000 people in the U.S. in the dark. The month-long disaster drove over 600,000 from their homes and business. Thousands, including military personnel, raced to help those affected.
Several years later, I covered in detail the stories of three utilities in the Southeastern U.S. seriously battered by Katrina.
For the first time in its history, one power company lost every single one of its customers. Over 1600 kilometres of distribution wire and hundreds of transmission towers were left lying in the water and muck. Substations were submerged and the utility’s storm centre was all but destroyed leaving communications in a shambles. Their storm plan of using 5,000 outside workers was not enough so they recruited nearly 6,000 technicians from 23 states and Canada. With the extra help the utility got power restored inside of 12 days to all those who could take it. In the end the crews replaced more than 9000 poles, 2300 transformers and repaired or replaced some 1865 kilometres of conductor.
Another utility watched in horror as the nine metre surge driven by 233 km/h winds moved across southern Louisiana. Levees failed to contain the rush and within hours more than 100,000 homes, or nearly 80 per cent of the city, lay under water. Nearly 1.1 million customers were without power. Substations were destroyed as they sat under salt water. The flooded coastal areas presented the biggest challenges because crews had to fight tooth-and-nail just to reach the equipment.
Sitting squarely in the middle of the area of Louisiana mauled by Katrina was a smaller energy company serving about 265,000 customers spread over 25 of the state’s parishes. Crews with outside cooperation and help managed to restore power to 80 per cent of the 87,000 homes and businesses within three weeks. The company’s radio system was the only working form of communication in the affected region for more than a week. The utility declared victory over the monster just 29 days after she hit.
Many workers from each utility saw their own homes and property destroyed, yet showed up every single day to work long, gruelling hours to restore power to their neighbours
An example of the restoration efforts was clear as one of the heavier hit utilities set up 30 staging areas where they lodged nearly 11,000 personnel that arrived from other states and Canada. The company provided over 35,000 meals a day. Beds of all description were found in mobile sleeper units (semi-trailers), school gymnasiums, military facilities, college dorms, tents, the utility’s own facilities, and hotels within a reasonable radius. The sleeping areas were hot, crowded, and noisy. This mixed with the adrenaline from the inordinate pressure the restoration crews were under, led to sleepless nights for many. It was imperative that safety inspectors were always near in the event a sleep-deprived technician was tempted to take a shortcut or risk safety.
A storm assignment is very often different from an employee’s day-to-day job with the utility. When the ‘All Hands on Deck’ order is yelled, disaster directors must ensure every employee and outside worker’s storm task is as close to their individual skill sets as possible.
Once on site, large numbers of workers were regularly affected by heat exhaustion, poison oak and ivy, insect bites, sunburn, rashes, cuts and scrapes, and even snake bites. Anyone who had to work long hours in standing water was inoculated against tetanus and other pathogens but there was no quick fix for the many cases of trench foot and other jungle-rot-type afflictions. Once the water subsided it left a thick layer of sludge that soon dried and formed a fine dust that became airborne. Getting an adequate supply of protective masks became a real problem. And there was the constant frustration among storm crews of having to wait for equipment and supplies that were trying to be moved through badly damaged handling facilities. The biggest single item of need was fuel for trucks and stand-by gennies.
Without electricity law enforcement, medical centres, sanitation stations, and fire departments are off-line and often hamstrung. Government agencies are also helpless in getting the necessary support and supplies desperately needed for the recovery.
One utility vice president reminded the region that the Katrina storm crews weren’t just getting the lights on, they were restoring hope. I smile with pride when I think of the stories and accounts that I heard about kids in the various affected areas. They knew Canadian crews were coming to help and as soon as they spotted the trucks the word spread and every kid raced to get their hockey stick. They somehow knew that if there were Canadians around, there was a good chance a road-hockey game would break out at some point.
Hurricane Sandy put over 8 million people in the dark, caused untold damage due to flooding and high winds, and paralyzed commerce in the most heavily populated region of the country. The massive clean-up continues and I’m proud to say that my son-in-law, a lineman with New Brunswick Power is part of a 15 crew contingent sent to Massachusetts and Rhode Island to help restore power to countless homes and businesses and provide hope to people. I’m pretty sure he and his co-workers have their hockey sticks.