When Natural Disasters Strike

Episode ID S3E08
August 23, 2023

Every day, staggering natural disasters are hitting the news – and electric utilities. Hurricanes and wildfires are taking an especially tough toll. In this episode of Power Plays, Mark Phillips of DEMCO in Louisiana and Pam Feuerstein of CORE Electric in Colorado share the details of planning for the unthinkable, and their respective co-ops’ recoveries from Hurricane Ida and the Hayman fire.


Teri Viswanath: Hurricane Ida was a deadly and extremely destructive Category 4 hurricane that developed two years ago, causing massive power outages and widespread damage in Louisiana.

The hurricane proved to be the sixth-costliest tropical cyclone on record, and the fourth-costliest Atlantic hurricane in the U.S.

We are going to visit with an electric co-op whose communities were located in the direct path of that storm.  

Hello, I’m Teri Viswanath, the energy economist at CoBank and your co-host of Power Plays. For this month’s podcast, my colleague and co-host Tamra Reynolds and I wanted to explore how electric cooperatives prepare for natural disasters.  

Tamra Reynolds: Hey Teri.

In advance of major storms (and natural disasters that strike without notice), electric co-op teams work together to identify system vulnerabilities and to identify potential resources--lining up personnel, equipment and supplies that may be needed to restore power to the communities.

Viswanath: But what exactly does advanced planning look like for natural disasters? And how do our co-ops recover from these unexpected devastating events?

We caught up with two amazing co-ops, one in Colorado — the state that is home (to us) but also elevated wildfire risk — and another co-op down on the Gulf in Louisiana, to hear their stories of preparation and recovery.

Our first conversation you’ll hear is with Mark Phillips, he’s the chief engineering and operations officer at DEMCO, Dixie Electric Membership Corporation.

Reynolds: DEMCO has been in service since about 1938, and has grown their membership to about 116,000 meters today. Their service territory stretches across seven parishes, northwest of New Orleans. The co-op manages roughly 9,000 miles of line (with only about 2,500 underground), and that equates to about 12 meters per mile of line.

Listen to Mark’s comments about DEMCO’s stewardship of this Louisiana electric distribution system and how this co-op team responded to their worst storm in nearly a century...

Mark Phillips: Back in 2021, Hurricane Ida completely devastated our service territory. You have all the models that predict a lot of things that a storm could possibly do or grow into, and they do a very good job of predicting that, but there's still that level of uncertainty of whether or not it's actually going to accelerate when it gets in the air. Is it going to get to us faster than we assumed? Is it going to be stronger than we originally assumed? With Ida, that was just the case.

As it got in, it literally got stronger as it got to the coast and it lasted so long. Usually, when it hits the coast, you start to see a decline in the magnitude and the size of the storm. Well, Ida just wasn't the case.

The worst hurricane by far that we have experienced in our 85-year history. Even though it was as bad as it was, we were able to survive and come out better than when we went in before, because of the experience we gained through that storm.

Reynolds: You play pretty big role when it comes to natural disasters and leading the team. Can you talk a little about what that role looks like and how you help the rest of your peers at DEMCO get ready for storms?

Phillips: Ultimately, I'm responsible for a large portion of the organization. I manage the inside line personnel. That's all the DEMCO linemen, and that's about 100 to 120 of us when you count all the management employees. Of course, I have a lot of input from the others in the organization--finance, fleet, facilities, they help develop the plan.

When it comes to engaging that plan, we take a lot of things into account. Number 1, of course, the size of the storm. Lesson that we learned from Hurricane Ida was that we need to have a tiered approach to restoration. When I say tiered approach, depending on the intensity of storm, we take a different approach to each storm.

Whether it's I'm just going to secure a block of hotel rooms, because I'm only thinking I'm going to get a hundred guys in here to help or 100, 200 guys, or do I need to take it a step further because we're going to see a bigger storm, and I’m going to need 500 guys. Or, is it to the magnitude of Hurricane Ida where we got a 1,000 folks in here and I need to set up a tent city or I need to setup some sort of relief that I can make a one-stop shop for when I can feed them, house them, shower them, do their laundry, give them all the essentials that they need for day-to-day all out of one place. Lessons learned over the years have forced us to redevelop our emergency supplies plan to support just that.

Then when you look at the efforts of the employees of DEMCO, we engage an all-hands-on-deck approach. We use every person that is an employee of DEMCO and we actually inject them into the process some way, somehow, because all those support services are probably more important than the restoration, because I've got to be concerned as well with whether or not if it's a long-winded storm, are those crews that come in to visit, are they going to stay or make another rotation?

Viswanath: Let's kind of talk a little bit about what a full-court press looks like at DEMCO based on that Hurricane Ida experience.

Phillips: We're trying to get ahead of it, and we're making an assumption for how many people do we need. We have statewide association here in Louisiana, Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, that work with us hand in hand in these types of events, because if they call us and, hey, we see this storm's coming. How many people do you think you need. I may say, "Well, I need 500 people." Well then, they start pulling the associations across the south or anybody that's willing to listen, say, "Hey, if this storm hits us and you're not going to be impacted, can you get these resources to us?"

Viswanath: For the Hurricane Ida, how long did you have crews in?

Phillips: That was a 21-day event for us. We do everything we can to protect our employees and their safety. Our employees were working 16-hour days, and that's from wake-up to late-out.

We had different things happening throughout the night. We had skeleton crews on through the middle of the night to go put eyes and ears on things that were hazards. We kept a 24-hour rotation of employees, maybe not to the scale of we're working 750 guys in the middle of day, but just 25 guys and they would overlap, taking care of issues and concerns that were popping up throughout the night.

Viswanath: If I'm an electric co-op that's sitting in the Midwest and I'm not familiar with hurricane damage and restoration, let's have a conversation about restoration. If I just transferred in a member of your team, Mark, what kind of mess can I expect has to be fixed to get people up and the lights on?

Phillips: Well, the first thing is, we're very heavily vegetated here in Louisiana on our system. We deal a lot with the vegetation, because underneath that vegetation is all the poles and all the damage that has occurred.

I have to cut those trees out the way, get those crews a clear path towards restoring power, because you can't drive trucks over the trees. I'm not talking about a small tree. I'm talking about large, massive oak trees that take humungous chainsaws to cut through. Then second thing would be the sheer topography of what we deal with. Our northern most part of our service territory is clay and hills. Not mountains, but just hills. Then you go the furthest reach of our southern territory, and it's swamp. You can't get a truck off the pavement, because you'll bury it. A lot of work has to be done manually.

It's just the sheer difference and the seasonal change from top to bottom. Then the wildlife that we have to deal with here. In hurricane season, it's not the snakes and it's not the alligators that everybody thinks we deal with on a day-to-day basis, it's the bugs. It's the mosquitoes. It gets so hot. The humidity's overwhelming as well at times.

But to come down and then work in that environment is something you're not used to, we have to take that in consideration when we're pushing those crews to make sure that they have the resources they need to stay cool, to stay hydrated, to stay well-fed so that they don't crash and burn while working for us.  

Viswanath: There's a lot of logistical markers for what's required in what a full-court press might look like, including the aftermath of the storm that will come through after the eye of the storm has passed. There's still a lot of weather that can be as destructive.

Phillips: Power was your number one necessity before the storm, whether you had electricity or not. Then post-storm, it's who's got fuel. If I can't put diesel in a truck, that truck can't go out to restore power. You have to have fuel to start the restoration process.

We had FuelCubes on the ground on day two of the storm. A FuelCube is the size of a tanker truck. We had a local football stadium close to headquarters where we would use as a parking lot. In the middle of the night, they'd go fuel those trucks up.

Reynolds: Mark, one of the things that was eye-opening for me to learn and talk about with customers during Winter Storm Uri was the early detection component and how much insight they had before that storm actually made impact and shut down the greater part of ERCOT. What tools do you use?

Phillips: Early detection, early prediction, really your first line of defense is your local weather service, but then again too, that's not enough.

Prior to Hurricane Ida, I was in the process of evaluating a software company called StormGeo. All throughout the Hurricane Ida, I was getting hour to hour, minute to minute updates from this software system. There's two types of winds that we deal with, with hurricanes. You have upper atmospheric winds where the winds are up high and it doesn't impact the ground, or you have surface level winds. Well, the surface level winds are the ones that are doing the damage.

I'm getting true information from a software system and a group of meteorologists that are taking the scare tactics out of it. I saw the value there. Not only does it bring value to those types of weather events, but it also brings day-to-day value -- we still deal with thunderstorms in the afternoon. You mentioned Hurricane Uri. Well, we were impacted by Hurricane Uri. That was a seven-day event for us, and we live in an area where that's very uncommon. We need the prediction for those also.

Viswanath: We've covered a lot of territory, but I want to make sure we haven't missed something. Mark. Is there anything top of mind that we haven't touched on?

Phillips: I think the biggest thing is have a plan in place, and evaluate that plan on a yearly basis. Don't take anything you're doing for granted. Create a network with other cooperatives, whether it be in your state or across the country.

We had over 5,000 broke poles during Hurricane Ida, and to restore 5,000, it takes longer than 21 days to build 5,000 poles. How did you get them up so fast? Make sure everybody in the co-op has some level of responsibility at that time, and that everybody is doing what they need to do to ultimately, to support the restoration of power. Have that plan in place. You can't do anything without a plan, especially tackle something like that.

Those were some long days and some tears were shed, and you never thought you were going to see the light the end of the tunnel, but no, it's what we do. It's what we do as cooperative employees, our linemen. I was a lineman. This is what we're built for. This is what we're made to do.

Reynolds: More than a million people lost power in Louisiana because of Hurricane Ida. This Category 4 hurricane proved to be one of the most devastating storms in U.S. history — downing more power poles in Louisiana than hurricanes Katrina and Rita combined. So, when Mark volunteered to speak with us about DEMCO’s system recovery effort with that storm, we knew that we wanted to hear that story.

Viswanath: DEMCO’s communities were in crisis and these teams, with the help of other co-ops, rose to the challenge.

Reynolds: Our next interview with Pam Feuerstein, the chief operating officer with CORE Electric and the largest co-op in the state of Colorado, speaks to gaining valuable situational awareness of natural disasters.

Viswanath: CORE Electric’s 5,000 square miles of territory is centered between Denver and Colorado Springs here in Colorado. The deadly Hayman Fire that occurred back in 2002 was within their service territory and at the time was the largest wildfire in the state's recorded history. Our conversation with Pam really focuses on preparation and planning that can help mitigate the risks of another Hayman Fire occurring. Listen to what she has to say…  

Pam Feuerstein: Our wildfire program is made up of several areas, and a big area is our operational practices and our situational awareness. That's where we do the risk assessment of our entire system. Using available data through Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Report through Colorado State Forest Service. This is data that we bring into our GIS system. Then we take all these different datasets and they're comprised of population, access issues, the amount of dead fuels, or potential for dead fuels in an area and it creates this risk profile, essentially, of our system. Now we can look at where our facilities are and what we do is rank them on a scale of one to five, one being no real risk.

Now when we're looking at the programs that we're developing, whether it's maintenance, construction programs, looking at overhead lines that are potential for underground, we look at that risk profile.

Viswanath: Let's talk a little bit about the drone technology in terms of risk assessment.

Feuerstein: We do a full visual patrol of our lines on some pretty strict schedules, and those schedules are based on if you're in high fire risk areas versus low fire risk. Obviously, we look at lines more frequently in the higher-risk areas, but that's all from a walking, looking-up type of view.

Bringing the drones in, we are now getting a top-down view, which can identify a lot of other issues from the top down, plus we use some infrared technology with those drones so it can determine if some of our connection points are hotspots. Right? Maybe the connection isn't quite what it should be, so we can identify those. They send us some high-quality pictures. We import all that data into our GIS system and they identify those as high risk to low risk, same sort of thing from a priority level.

We put that information into our GIS, prioritize it, and then now our linemen have access to all these dashboards and they know where they need to go immediately to make repairs. Then we schedule the rest down based on severity.

Reynolds: Wildfires sparked by electrical components are a rising problem. The deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, was caused by faulty transmission lines. Pam, how does CORE consider electric placement or re-placement in light of wildfire risk?

Feuerstein: Again, we prioritize things based on the risk level within our system, which a big portion of our system is a pretty high risk, at pretty high risk, but things like fuses-- the normal fuse that we've used for 40 years are expulsion type fuses. When there's a fault, they blow up essentially. Sparks could cause a fire, just your normal fuse, so there's non-expulsion fuses. We're implementing those in high-risk areas.

Our reclosing devices were typically oil devices. We've gone through and replaced all those oil devices with non-oil types switches, air switches that can be used instead. Again, another mitigating factor. Our construction, the way we do construction is looked at we-- longer cross arms, a lot of rubber goods, meaning a lot of cover-up on jumpers so that an animal, squirrel, bird can't make connection, or if they do make connection, it's covered, insulated, not to cause a spark or an issue.

Viswanath: We briefly touched on the use of drones for aerial imaging and, of course, ground crew inspections but what other resources are you applying to gain greater situational awareness or early detection insights?

Feuerstein: We have several different things that we're doing in that area, from cameras, cameras that we have access to, and just can if we get word from social media, through the news that there may be a fire in our service territory. We may be can point one of those cameras in the area to try and get a better idea of what that fire looks like.

We subscribe to a service called FireGuard that has some parameters that that if that service detects a fire within our service territory or some defined miles outside of our service territory that we ask them to provide us an email notification that there might be something for us to look at. Then even more recently, we've started a pilot project with some artificial intelligent cameras that are continuously doing a 360 scan within our service territory, and they detect smoke plumes and then automatically notify us which is very interesting and fantastic technology.

If it detects a smoke plume, we get a notification in the first zero to five minutes that there is a fire, a smoke plume at least detected in our service territory so we can more quickly react to that to look at the area, one, and determine is this a place where we have facilities, do not have facilities? That information can also be shared with local emergency responders.

From a situational awareness perspective, we're getting better at being notified in a very quick manner that there is even an event in our service territory, and then that way we can communicate very quickly internally, "Hey, there's something going on, nothing to worry about from our perspective as running the utility at this time, this is the location, people are responding to it," to "Hey, we do have facilities that are relatively close or in this potential area we may want to send some crews to find out what the situation is and see if our services are needed."

Viswanath: That's really interesting because I do think when we think about the first responders and maybe the traditional case is it would be very passive. We would wait for someone to let us know that there's a problem and then we respond. How do we get that high-priority message out to the membership?

Feuerstein: We treat it the same, when we have large weather events from an outage perspective, even with wildfire right now, but it's a big blast on all our social media platforms, on our website. We may be in contact with specific news agencies to let them know what's going on and what we're doing. We have a fully staffed communications department, but we internally get the information needed from the subject matter experts involved, and then they are able to communicate with all various forms of media to our members. We have also really good relationships with the cities and towns that we serve and the local governments. Have relationships there so we can also reach out and keep those people informed.

Viswanath: We are seeing some federal funding to begin to add additional layers of protection. There's $38 million in funding that was announced for Colorado to expand wildfire barriers and protect communities and firefighters. How does that actually work, that was made available through recent congressional funding? How does that work for Colorado?

Feuerstein: Unfortunately, that particular funding was allotted for national forests that aren't in our service territory. What we're hoping for is there'll be some additional funding. The major forests that we serve, are involved, have our facilities in is the Pikes and Isabel. This one, I think these forests were more on the western slope here in Colorado for this first tranche of funding. Hopefully, there'll be more. Speaking of grant and funding that is available, there's been a lot of DOE funding that we have grant applications in for that is for some of the technologies and systems that we're implementing and hoping to deploy and trying to get some grant funding so we can further be progressive in our wildfire mitigation program.

Viswanath: That's really helpful. Is there any question that I've missed?

Feuerstein: A couple of things that are worth mentioning, we have deployed throughout our entire service territory what we call some alternate relay settings, that we are able to with literally a push of a button in our control center enable under specific conditions, so high fire danger conditions, high wind conditions where they'll trip instantaneously, essentially, and won't sit and try and reclose during an event. Yes, we'll have more people out of power potentially during an outage if something were to make contact with the line. It might take us a little longer to restore, but it's another way of being proactive of de-energizing our system quickly if there was a contact during a high fire weather situation.

Then our vegetation management program, all of our lines specifically in the mountains are in some pretty heavily forested areas, and we have a very strict cycle-type approach right now to our vegetation management. It's another area where we're looking at artificial intelligence, satellite imagery to help really better spend our dollars in the highest-risk areas and making sure that we can target where the trees really need to be taken out. Target those hazard trees that are outside of our right of way and make sure that those are mitigated.

Reynolds: As Pam highlighted for us, there are four distinct focus areas for CORE Electric’s wildfire planning efforts — risk analysis, mitigation, situational awareness, and response. What was interesting to me was to hear how integrated this program is with managing their network. When system decisions — whether it's maintenance, construction programs, or looking at overhead lines that are potential for underground — CORE looks at the risk profile and will perform a complete assessment to understand system impacts.  

Viswanath: I hope you’ve enjoyed our conversation this month and will listen in next month as we continue to talk about infrastructure planning, this time turning our attention to large transmission projects.

Reynolds: We are going to hear from industry experts about the need for new transmission development in the country and better understand costs allocation. I hope you’ll join us. Bye for now.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be investment, tax, or legal advice and should not be relied upon by listeners for such purposes. The information contained in this podcast has been compiled from what CoBank regards as reliable sources. However, CoBank does not make any representation or warranty regarding the content, and disclaims any responsibility for the information, materials, third-party opinions, and data included in this podcast. In no event will CoBank be liable for any decision made or actions taken by any person or persons relying on the information contained in this podcast.

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