Manpower trumps technology for utilities in the 'beltway of hurricanes'

BEAUMONT, Texas -- Shortly after he took the stage, following videos of past hurricanes and a forecast of what this year may bring, Vernon Pierce recited a familiar Entergy Corp. motto.

"Prepare for the worst," he said, "and hope for the best."

It's a tagline that may come across as cliché. Yet it's unquestionably on point for a utility whose service territory includes parts of Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. Hurricane season for Atlantic storms began June 1 and runs through the end of November.

People in the U.S. Gulf Coast region know a storm could come anytime, especially as August and September approach. So earlier this month, Entergy invited emergency personnel, government leaders and residents to an event center in the Beaumont area to hear from speakers such as Pierce, Entergy's storm incident commander for Texas.

There was a review of lashing winds and rising waters, along with details of how storm response works. There was a show of force in the form of bucket trucks and other equipment parked outside, looming reminders of what storm restoration entails. There even were door prizes with emergency supplies.


There wasn't, however, any assurance that a hurricane won't hit in 2014 or that lights won't go out.

Each year, states along the Gulf of Mexico greet hurricane season like a familiar visitor, albeit an unwelcome one who answers to an array of names. For all the advances in technology, having workers ready to fix poles and wires remains central to storm response efforts that can last days or weeks.

"We've got some real good plans," Greg Grillo, the system storm incident commander for Entergy, said in an interview. "Unfortunately, they've been tested time and time again, not just from drills but from real events, so we'll be ready."

Many people remember the deadly storm season of 2005, which saw Hurricane Katrina slam and flood New Orleans, requiring evacuations and leading to years of rebuilding and improvements to the area's levee system. That also was the year Hurricane Rita caused damage in Texas and Louisiana.

In 2008, Hurricane Gustav struck Louisiana and Hurricane Ike smacked Galveston and Houston, leaving some of the CenterPoint Energy Inc.'s service territory in Texas without power for weeks.

Other storms have developed since then, including extensive rain in Louisiana from Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

Preparations continue for the next big event. New Orleans-based Entergy last month took time to run a drill on what to do during a storm. Hundreds of workers were involved in responding to a fictional Category-3 hurricane.

CenterPoint had its own exercise recently that involved people in everything from assessments to dealing with staging sites, said David Baker, division vice president of distribution power delivery at the Houston-based company. For a number of workers, including linemen and crew leaders, practicing an emergency operations plan already happens more routinely, he said.

Following a plan

This year's Atlantic hurricane season may see about nine named storms, four hurricanes and just one intense hurricane that's a Category 3, 4 or 5, Chris Hebert of ImpactWeather told the Beaumont audience on June 11.

It's been nearly nine years since the United States was hit by a Category-3 or greater hurricane, while typically it sees such a storm every year and a half, Hebert said. This year's somewhat modest forecast follows a rather inactive season last year.

But Hebert said the central Gulf Coast is a place to watch in 2014, as storms may not give much warning as they develop.

A cornerstone of hurricane planning remains getting information out to the general public, said Rick Flanagan, Houston's emergency management coordinator. The watch can begin five days before a storm arrives, and Flanagan said the message push increases as a storm gets closer.

At Entergy, Pierce said the company monitors weather related to an approaching Gulf storm and talks with other utilities and contractors about possible help restoring power as needed. Then crews are pre-staged to respond quickly.

Once the storm hits, the company starts to assess the damage. Pierce said that includes deploying people in trucks, on foot and, as the weather allows, in a helicopter. Entergy examines the status of its plants, transmission lines and substations.

Utilities try to keep in mind crucial customers, such as water treatment plants, hospitals and command centers, as they map out restoration plans. Industrial and refining operations also can be considered. Beyond that, companies are looking to restore locations that can bring the most people back online at a time.

One area of evolution for Entergy is the process of housing extra workers who arrive to make repairs, Pierce said, recalling efforts during Katrina that resulted in some people having to stay in apartments. Today, staging areas can include large tents, civic centers and schools.

The timing of recovery is a question that can be hard to pinpoint. Pierce provided possibilities at the Beaumont event, showing a slide with pre-landfall estimates of how long it might be until 90 percent of customers see power restored: a week for a Category 1, two weeks for a Category 3 and beyond three weeks for a Category 5.

At CenterPoint, workers seek to energize undamaged parts of its system, Baker said. At the same time, engineers and assessors look at damage as crews head toward affected areas.

"No utility is large enough to handle an event like a hurricane," Baker said. "We all help each other out and have mutual assistance groups."

Hardening efforts

Smart meters and intelligent grid devices such as automatic switching components help CenterPoint with daily activities, according to Baker. So if a car hits a pole and causes damage, the company can isolate the issue to a smaller area, he said.

Unfortunately, if a hurricane comes through and knocks out most people's power, Baker said, smart meters aren't necessarily able to communicate with the company as they normally do. That means having boots on the ground remains important.

"The technology can't assess damage, the technology can't repair poles, can't put wire back up, stuff like that," Baker said.

If a storm is bad enough in Entergy's territory, one option could be to receive special permission to connect into the area managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Entergy operates outside of ERCOT in eastern Texas, but some of its territory touches the Houston area.

Advanced equipment is helpful during major events, Pierce said, noting a so-called alley machine that can go into tight spaces to help put up a pole. Pierce said Entergy's employees realize everyone has to be ready to go into action during a hurricane.

"You may be a lawyer by day, you may be in charge of laundry by night," he said.

It used to be that most major U.S. outages were caused by something other than weather, but now weather can cause nearly three-quarters of big power losses, said Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota. He said mutual assistance programs do aid in response efforts to an increasing number of major outages.

"However, we have been slow adjusting to this new changed risk profile that we have to deal with," Amin said.

The price of making a stronger and smarter grid runs in the billions of dollars, but such spending could create potential economic and efficiency savings, Amin said. Some ways to make a stronger grid include installing non-wood poles, trimming vegetation and elevating critical substations in flood-prone areas.

Electric infrastructure requires a long-term vision that can pay dividends, just as investments in the highway system and the Internet unleashed new possibilities, according to Amin.

"I wish instead of paying lip service to infrastructure, we would actually commit to [an] infrastructure upgrade because that's some of the best economic investments we can do in advancing our society," Amin said.

Billions of dollars were spent to beef up protection of New Orleans in the event of a storm that brings high water, and utilities in the Gulf region have made some progress in bolstering the grid. Entergy said it has spent more than $1 billion hardening its system since 2008.

CenterPoint studied the recovery from Hurricane Ike and instituted changes, Baker said. That included improving tree trimming, which "on a day-to-day basis customers really don't like," he said. The company seeks to trim the entire easement and is cutting more often, and it's also working to check poles and wires more frequently.

'Beltway of hurricanes'

Texas' continued growth illustrates the scale of the challenge when a major storm rumbles through the region. In 1983, when Hurricane Alicia hit Houston, CenterPoint had about 750,000 electric customer accounts, Baker said. That number was about 2.2 million in 2008 and now is up to roughly 2.4 million.

The company has gone to more staging sites to handle the number of people involved in its storm efforts, Baker said. A potential storm surge, the amount of rainfall, and strength and duration of winds all have an effect on what a hurricane's impacts will be, he said. Sustained high winds can knock down trees and billboards, possibly threatening power lines.

Leonardo Dueñas-Osorio, an associate professor at Rice University, said a development to watch in future storm planning and recovery efforts is the role of the microgrid, which can be "a grid within the grid." Such grids at certain campuses or businesses can keep power available in part of a region even as many people suffer power outages.

For those who rely on Entergy during a storm, the company said it has several ways to reach customers, including calls, text messages and a smartphone app. There have been more than 200,000 downloads of the Entergy app, the company said, and some 815,000 customers signed up for text alerts.

Flanagan, Houston's emergency management coordinator, said being ready and constantly working to improve storm plans are part of living in the region.

"We know that we're in the beltway of hurricanes, so that's an annual process that we go through every year," he said. Flanagan said people who follow instructions from officials will be in the best position.

Carl Pickett, the mayor of Liberty, Texas, remembers the trees across roads, the leaves and the vegetation after Hurricane Ike struck in 2008. Officials operated for days out of City Hall, which was powered by a generator, he said, and it took about a week to get power back on for most residents.

The city had restrooms and showers for officials at its facility in 2008, although it didn't have a washer and dryer set up, Pickett said. The city had help from San Antonio in getting electricity restored.

Liberty handles its own electric distribution, and Entergy also operates in some of the area, according to the mayor. Pickett said Liberty tries to keep its system up to date with a good amount of redundancy, and he expressed confidence that the city can respond if a hurricane strikes, although power restoration can take time.

Is there anything he'd add to the city's response for the next big storm?

"A washer and dryer," Pickett quipped.

Twitter: @edward_klump | Email: eklump@eenews.net

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