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Hurricane Ian and Sanibel Island Power Grid Rebuild - An insider’s view of electric co-op and utility mutual aid

Russ Hissom's picture
Owner Utility Accounting Education Specialists - utilityeducation.com

Russ is the owner of Utility Accounting Education Specialists a firm that provides power utilities consulting services and online/on-demand courses on accounting, finance, FERC best-practices,...

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  • Jan 5, 2023
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Mutual aid, a core value of the electric business

One of the beauties of the power and utilities industry is the eagerness to help fellow electric co-ops and utilities in times of need. Restoring power to customers is built into the electric industry psyche, which translates into the willingness to travel across the country or state to assist in restoration efforts. This is called mutual aid. (You can see the full article here).

My career has been spent consulting for public power utilities, electric co-ops, and investor-owned utilities. Part of that work is teaching accounting and business processes to utilities to manage storm events. This involves setting up accounting systems to manage the mutual aid process. One of the major projects we did was helping the public power utility on Long Island manage the process after Hurricane Sandy.

We’re off to Florida!

I'm not a native Floridian but our family has been going to Sanibel and Captiva Islands since 1998, staying at condos and houses, frequenting restaurants, shops, the beach, biking, enjoying nature, the Ding Darling preserve, and everything offered by the unique experiences available. In May 2022, we fulfilled a long-term dream and plan of getting ready to transition to Florida residency by purchasing a house on Sanibel Island.

The perspective of hurricanes to a Florida newbie

I'm originally from the upper Midwest. The upper Midwest has snow and the occasional tornado for storms. Snow is easy; stay home if possible, and shovel or plow when it's over. Tornados happen infrequently, but when they do, there is little time to prepare, only to seek shelter and hope that the tornado hits a rural cornfield and dissipates.

Hurricanes are much different, as you all know, but especially for a Florida newbie. There seems to be at least a week of watching and worrying about a hurricane's landfall. There's something about rooting for a hurricane to miss your location because that means it will impact someone else. It doesn't seem right.

These were the thoughts as we saw Hurricane Ian form and head north in the Caribbean. Is Ian headed for Tampa? Wait, I have friends in Tampa, and I don't want them to be impacted. The storm track is moving south and east? I don't want Sanibel to be impacted, either.

I learned more about the cone and spaghetti models than I ever knew. I followed Mike's Weather Page on Facebook hourly. (ps. Mike's initial forecast of the storm track was spot on). I prayed. But the inevitable happened, and Hurricane Ian directly hit Sanibel and Pine Islands. You couldn't have painted a more giant bullseye on the islands. The eye of the storm was 30 miles wide, and on the Weather Channel, we watched the radar showing the eastern side of the eyewall go right through our neighborhood! We feared the worst, even though our house was built to Category 5 standards.

Ian's aftermath

The day after Ian's landfall (September 29) was no better. We woke up to find the Sanibel Causeway had washed away in three areas, cutting off the island from the mainland. How would we do repairs? Was our house even standing? There was no information to be had.

The City of Sanibel government began implementing its disaster recovery plan. The plan did not have a contingency for a washed-out causeway, but smart people started to figure out what to do.

In this crisis, I can't say enough good things about the City of Sanibel government. City Manager Dana Souza, Mayor Holly Smith, and the City Staff seemed to work without sleep as they managed the fluid situation, even as their homes sustained damage. The daily city briefing at 5 PM became "must-see streaming." Governor DeSantis unleashed the power of the Florida Department of Transportation, rebuilding a temporary causeway in 21 days, vs. the initial estimate of one year. Ten thousand dump truck loads of fill and working 24/7 made it happen. The city relaxed rules allowing boat traffic to take islanders over to check their homes. The city established a barge service to take emergency workers and electric bucket trucks over to the island to get a start on rebuilding the electric system.

What of our house? We did not partake of the boats but relied on pictures from NOAA weather satellites and Coast Guard flyovers to determine that our house was still standing. We hired a drone operator to fly over our house, and while the video showed a fair amount of damage, it looked habitable from the outside.

We were very fortunate and blessed. Our house is elevated. Many neighborhoods on Sanibel have ground-level homes and condominiums that will have to be rebuilt to current codes or torn down as the storm surge was 15' across the island. The first floors of these dwellings were entirely under water.

The electric bucket truck mutual aid convoy comes to the rescue!

The local electric provider on Sanibel Island is Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC). LCEC is a hurricane-hardened co-op prepared for storm restoration work, but this was on a much larger scale than they had addressed before.

The causeway opened, and the first groups of vehicles were 200 electric bucket trucks. What an incredible and welcoming sight! This was mutual aid on steroids. With LCEC leading the way, the bucket truck brigade had crews of public power and investor-owned utilities, electric co-ops, and electric contracting firms across Florida and the United States.

They found the concrete poles of the transmission lines serving the island lying along San-Cap Road. They found flooded substations. They found distribution poles down, transformers in the streets, and most homes' electric meters were below the surge line and were now useless.

After the crews had been working on the island to make streets passable, residents were allowed to come over. It was about a month after lan's landfall, and there still was no power as the electric distribution system was being rebuilt. But we followed with many residents to see what awaited us. Being from "up north," you see annual videos of hurricane aftermaths, but until you see the mountains of debris 10’-15' high along both sides of every road, you can't comprehend the damage a hurricane brings. We saw the video of electric golf carts combusting and of several homes burning from electric cars in their garages combusting due to saltwater intrusion in batteries. I'm not sure that barrier islands are ready for electric vehicles with the current technology.

Cleaning up

Our house was indeed standing, and the surge waterline gave us a few feet to spare, so water did not enter the living area. We began the clean-up of muck and debris from the surge. Facebook pages were set up for almost every neighborhood and shared information on contractors for hire and reviews of their services, so we obtained some assistance for the clean-up.

There was no power, water, or sewer service at this time, so the city set up generator-powered battery charging stations and placed portable toilets around the island. The wireless providers placed generator-powered portable units for service. The utility service I missed most during the early clean-up was the water utility service since no water equals no sewer.

But thoughts turn to electric services. As in the heat and humidity of the island, no power equals no air conditioning, which equals mold growth. Electricity and air conditioning are the saviors against mold ravaging your home. It also provides steady power for potable water service (instead of backup generators) and useable sewer services.

We heard updates from LCEC at the nightly city meetings on progress. Most electric meters had to be replaced, and LCEC said they had plenty of meters. LCEC hooked up customers as soon as requests came in and were great at serving their customers.

We got smarter about "meter cans" which I had never heard of before, but it is the homeowner's responsibility to provide a meter can to attach the meter. Most meter cans were flooded and needed replacing. There was a shortage of meter cans and a robust secondary market for cans. There was a shortage of electricians to install meter cans and electric panels. We were fortunate to find a great electrician who helped us out (and, in turn, many of our neighbors). When word of a good electrician got around, it was posted on Facebook, and if you had an electrician servicing your house, neighbors would pop on over to tap their services.

We're energized!

Driving around the island, you would see bucket trucks and invariably give the crew a wide berth, a thumbs up, and thoughts of "come to our neighborhood." Then, one day, a big, beautiful bucket truck came down our street. The electric crew started working on the poles! They strung conductor! They installed a new meter! Then the digits on the meter turned on as they energized the line! We flipped the main circuit on the electric panel and saw lights come on. It was a fantastic site! But, hearing the hum of the air conditioners (elevated at 20' and undamaged) was pure music.

It was a sweet irony that the crew that energized our neighborhood was from Long Island. I thanked them and heard their distinct Long Island accent. I saw the city name on their bucket truck of a town where I had spent the better part of two years providing services. It was like going back to the training and Hurricane Sandy days. Who knew?

The dedication to mutual aid

I know that all of you that work in the power and utilities business have seen the grateful faces of those you help. Not all of those recipients realize the sacrifice made by crews living in outside camps, sleeping in their trucks, working in hazardous conditions, and being away from their families. Also, the crews back home must pull extra duty to backfill the crews that head to mutual aid.

It is a fantastic feat that the electric system in Sanibel and Captiva has been rebuilt to the shape it is now. Most homes that are able to take power can get power. It is a testament to the crews that sacrificed to make this happen.

Electric co-ops and utilities put processes in place for collecting the data, billing, paying, and collecting from insurers and FEMA. But, the process cannot work without crews' willingness to sacrifice and do the hard outside work. Also, the desire of utilities and co-ops to help each other through times of strife with mutual aid must be in place. This desire is part of the fabric of the electric business, and we customers are truly grateful.

About Russ Hissom - Article Author

Russ is the owner of Utility Accounting Education Specialists a firm that provides power utilities consulting services and online/on-demand courses on accounting, finance, FERC best-practices, improving business processes, and implementing strategy. Russ is passionate about the Power and Utilities Industry and his goal is to share industry best practices to help better your business and enhance your career knowledge. He has over 35 years serving electric investor-owned and public power utilities, electric cooperatives, broadband providers, and water, wastewater, and gas utilities as a past partner in a national public accounting and consulting firm's power and utilities practice. Russ was named one of the 2021 Top Voices in the Energy Central Community by EnergyBiz Network.

Find out more about Utility Accounting Education Specialists here or you can reach Russ at russ.hissom@utilityeducation.com.

The material in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal or accounting advice provided by UAES. You should seek formal advice on this topic from your accounting advisor.

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