By Allison Law
In the late summer, electric utility employees keep a close and wary eye on the tropics. Tropical cyclone activity generally kicks into high gear in late August, and 2020 was no exception.
Hurricane Laura, a deadly and destructive category 4 storm, pummeled southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas when it made landfall Aug. 27. More than 1 million people lost power.
Alabama sent more than 175 men from 14 co-ops to help restore electricity to the Beauregard Electric Cooperative in DeRidder, Louisiana. Several co-ops were still working there when Hurricane Sally formed in the Gulf of Mexico, and as it strengthened, Alabama’s co-op crews returned home, unsure of its path.
On the 16-year anniversary of Hurricane Ivan’s landfall in the same location, Hurricane Sally came ashore as a category 2 storm near Gulf Shores on Sept. 16. While the gusts from the storm – with sustained winds of 105 mph – were destructive, Sally’s slow movement brought several hours of widespread and catastrophic rainfall that caused major flooding in many parts of southwest Alabama.
As the storm moved on, there were more than 100,000 outages to cooperative members statewide, and Baldwin EMC, with more than 80,000 meters in Baldwin and Monroe counties, bore the brunt of the damage.
The co-op had about 2,000 broken poles, 1,200 broken crossarms, more than 4,000 spans of downed wire and more than 4,000 trees on lines. More than 78,000 meters were without power.
After a flyover of the affected areas, Gov. Kay Ivey was quoted by Alabama News Center as saying, “We knew that Hurricane Sally had the potential to be a devastating storm, but y’all, it’s really bad.”
Baldwin EMC CEO Karen Moore had first-hand experience with Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, but Sally was different for her co-op. “This was certainly the most devastating storm Baldwin EMC has ever had to hit our electrical system,” she says.
Her team knew they would need help, and safety specialists from Alabama Rural Electric Association (AREA) immediately got to work on the phones, coordinating mutual aid among sister cooperatives. With such weather events, co-ops in a storm’s path have to be mindful that they, too, may suffer damage, so they must wait to make sure their line crews aren’t needed at home before they’re promised to another utility.
But within 72 hours following the storm, Baldwin EMC received 1,365 line workers, and more came in the following days. “It’s a sight to behold to see convoys of trucks arriving at our corporate headquarters, knowing they left their families to come in our time of need.”
Baldwin received help from sister co-ops in Alabama and 11 other states. Alabama co-ops sending help were Central Alabama, Cherokee, Covington, Cullman, Clarke-Washington, Dixie, Joe Wheeler, Marshall-DeKalb, Pea River, Pioneer, Southern Pine, Tallapoosa River and Wiregrass.
Of course, Baldwin’s own employees never stopped working, though some of them had damage at their own homes. “Watching these employees show up for work in spite of their own personal loss is an extreme example of service before self,” Moore says.
Other co-ops, including Southern Pine and Clarke-Washington, also suffered damage to their systems and needed help from sister co-ops. As these co-ops restored power to their members, the crews helping them, as well as some of their own crews, were then able to travel to Baldwin to help.
In the era of social media – with the ability to quickly dash off a complaint after a few days without power – Baldwin’s members were amazingly positive.
“The fact that our members were communicating with us, offering words of encouragement and prayers, made us feel like they were very understanding of the challenge we had,” Moore says. Co-ops who sent help were monitoring Baldwin’s social media channels, and they recognized that the Baldwin members were lifting the employees up when they needed it the most.
“We had a lot of factors working against us, but they don’t compare to the resiliency of what was working for us,” Moore says.ν
Editor’s note: As this issue was going to press, Alabama’s co-ops were once again helping another state in need. About 75 men from 10 co-ops were headed to DEMCO in southeast Louisiana to restore power to the areas hit hard by Hurricane Delta.