WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA DEVASTATED THE COASTLINES OF LOUISIANA AND MISSISSIPPI the night of Aug. 29, 2005, dedicated IBEW linemen from all over the country were awakened by a call for help. This is their story: How they were trained for this unprecedented disaster; what safety precautions they took in rebuilding the miles of downed power lines; and how they related to other contractors on the job and their host utility.
From inexperienced apprentice to veteran journeyman, what IBEW linemen have in common is their excellent training that helps them bring a high level of expertise and confidence to power-restoration jobs after major storms. This training consists of four years of combined classroom and hands-on fieldwork under the direct supervision of journeymen through either the Joint Apprentice Training Committee (JATC) program or the American Line Building Apprentice Training (ALBAT) program. Hands-on experience, organizational skills and staying mentally sharp under unusual conditions: these were some areas of their training that linemen found to be especially useful when working on power restoration after Hurricane Katrina.
Commenting on the hands-on experience, Travis Horton, a lineman with PAR Electrical Contractors Inc., Quanta Energy Services, said, “Apprentice training is getting out there and doing the work and learning on the job. You've got your classroom work, which can teach you the electrical theory and technical issues, but to learn the actual job, it's all hands-on work. The more storms you work, the more experience you get at rebuilding systems at a much faster pace than you're normally used to. During Hurricane Katrina restoration, we had an apprentice with us, and by the look in his eyes, you could tell he was lost. He didn't know how to work so fast, never having been on anything like that before. But he will learn, and being on the job and watching us do it is how he will learn.”
Organization was the key training point for Tony Miller, general foreman with Henkels & McCoy Inc., who worked in Pass Christian, Mississippi, one of the hardest hit areas from the hurricane. He said, “We were able to analyze situations no matter how bad and then organize ourselves to solve them. It's something we have learned to do on a daily basis.”
Clyde Cross, general foreman, PAR Electrical, pointed out that although he and his linehands dealt with heavy conductor and frequently two to three circuits per pole, he felt confident knowing they had all gone through the same kind of training and could handle any situation.
Even the brutal heat and high humidity did not stand in the way of getting the power restored efficiently. Shawn Schmill, foreman, PAR Electrical, relied on his training to keep him going and stay mentally sharp when working long hours under these conditions. Schmill said, “As you go through the apprentice program, you work in many different and difficult situations, and the journeymen teach you how to keep yourself going.” Henkels & McCoy's Miller said, “Mississippi Power put us through an orientation session to explain what we would be dealing with, the heat and humidity, hazards we would encounter and some of the problems we might have down there with the people who were in such a state of shock.”
Entergy and Mississippi Power Co., the two main utilities affected by Katrina, both held orientation classes for linemen who had come to help restore power. Cross said, “Entergy set up a class and explained their safety guidelines and rules, what we should expect in the field and the kinds of things we might encounter. They explained the kind of grounding they wanted and other safety regulations.” For Dave Brown, foreman, Harlen Electric Co., MYR Group, it was the emphasis on safety at these classes that impressed him most. He said, “What really impressed me and a lot of the others in my class is that Entergy said they were most concerned with our safety and our getting back home.”
The storm restoration after Katrina was itself an extension of the linemen's training. Cross explained that working on Katrina “gave us ideas on how we can respond better on future storms. In fact, PAR Electrical is now putting together a storm trailer that will be ready to go at any time and will allow 15 to 18 linemen to be completely self-sufficient for 72 hours, the critical time after which the utility may be able to stage crews out of other facilities. Something else we learned down there was to flag the grounds with a bright flag in the air on the wire itself. The information as to who applied the ground was written on the flag. They were highly visible and easy to see, and it kept a lot of overlapping from occurring. The men who work with me in the Wichita, Kansas, area are doing this now.”
Horton said that working on Katrina made him look at his work differently with respect to safety. For example, bolts and hardware may look strong but actually be corroded and ready to break. He said, “We'd take a transformer off, and the bolt would be completely corroded through. Seeing something like that really makes you check everything before proceeding. A lot of the poles were rotten a foot below ground from the standing water. You couldn't take anything for granted and had to inspect everything before you even attempted to make a plan.”
The goal of both Entergy and Mississippi Power was zero accidents for the restoration work and both had precise safety rules the linemen had to follow. Some rules were the same as what their contractors require; others were more stringent. Fall protection, use of fire-resistant clothing and general approach to the work were the same between contractors and host utilities. The biggest difference was in methods of grounding. Linemen working on the Entergy system in Mississippi and in New Orleans had to follow more stringent grounding rules than they were used to at home. PAR Electrical's Cross said, “We isolate ourselves from backfeed and always ground the primary side. We use equipotential grounding. If there is any question, we also put on personal grounds on each side of the area we are working on. Entergy goes further by grounding at each end of the line (bracket grounds), as well as every five spans even if the wires are down on the ground and tangled with other wires and debris.”
Brown said that for his normal work with Harlen, he has to wear rubber gloves and sleeves all the time. But with Entergy, “If we had our bracket grounds up and were working within our box grounds, we were to use leather gloves and no rubber gloves or sleeves. Our company said as long as we follow the rules and there is no way for backfeed to occur, then we could work in leather gloves.” He recounted how one crew at the initial stage of the restoration almost got sent home by Entergy because they were working with rubber gloves even though they had the proper grounds up. “Understanding their method of grounding was the biggest problem we had down there,” he said.
Miller recounted a personal safety issue with the possibility of backfeed from generators. He said, “When we were in the Loosedale, Mississippi, area about 60 miles north of the coast, we heard generators quite a bit. There was less devastation there. All the generators we dealt with were hooked up correctly. While grounding is sufficient for safe working, my policy was to isolate them. If that meant pulling the meter, I pulled the meter. If it meant taking the transformer tap off-line, I did that and then grounded it. I want it isolated.”
Problems of fatigue and high levels of contamination added to safety issues related to the actual electrical reconstruction. Sinus and respiratory problems plagued the linemen as the mud from the floodwaters following Katrina dried up. Cross said, “As the mud dried, we stayed in a constant dust storm from the trucks kicking up the dust. Everything that was in the mud initially became part of the dust. We wore masks for protection, and they helped some, but also made us feel the heat all the more. Also, we made sure we kept the linemen supplied with all the water we could get. And that was hard to do, especially at the beginning.”
Cross recounted having gone to work on Katrina after already having put in 2100 or 2200 hours for the year through August in Kansas on ice and wind storms, so that his linehands were very well conditioned. But with Katrina, he said, “It was still pretty overwhelming, particularly working behind the levee restoring power to the pumps. The heat was tremendous there, and it was the end of August when normal temperatures and humidity are oppressive, too. We relied on the linemen's great physical capacity and stamina through it all.”
Support from the local IBEW to linemen who are working out of their area on storm restoration includes helping to set wage scales, resolving problems and serving as a communications link between a lineman and his family. Cross said, “When you go on a storm job, you don't know where you're going and whether or not there will be any questions or problems on the job or with other linemen or even an emergency at home. For these issues, the IBEW local you work out of is a great resource. You have to push your personal life into the background when doing storm work, and having the IBEW there with you gives the linemen an insurance policy that says if something happens to them or something happens at home, they will be contacted immediately. If there is a problem on the job that isn't being dealt with by the contractor, it just takes a phone call to the local to get IBEW representation to work out the problem.”
Miller and Schmill agree. According to Miller, what the IBEW does more than anything is see that the manpower is available to do the work. He said, “Mississippi Power will contact the contractors directly, and the IBEW will fill in the voids when someone can't go or is not being released by a utility.” Schmill said, “The IBEW makes sure what wage scale we're on and monitors what the conditions are.”
RELATIONS WITH OTHER CONTRACTORS
Because utilities usually assigned crews a substation and one feeder from that substation, there was little or no contact or assistance between line contractors. “Entergy kept us separate from other line contractors,” Schmill said. “They just gave us a section of line to work.” Miller said that Mississippi Power “kept us separate, but we did work in close proximity with another contractor. We worked on one section of a line and they worked on another. However, clearance points were established and were not to be violated.”
Obviously, keeping line crews separate was a safety issue, but linemen did have to work closely with tree-trimming crews. Brown reported that a tree crew was assigned to him: “Entergy would assign us a feeder and a tree crew to work with us. We would locate where we were going to work and show their foreman, who then brought in his crew. First they cleaned up the heavy trees and limbs, and we would start working where there wasn't any tree work needed. It worked real well.”
Cross gives a lot of credit to his bird dog, the person from Entergy assigned to work with his crews. He said, “If we were going into an area that would require tree trimmers, I would tell our bird dog who would contact whatever tree trimming contractor was available. They worked right along with us. We had to make sure the lines were dead before they worked and to account for them when it was time to re-energize a line.”
Naturally, there would be some downtime while tree trimmers were working; but initially, according to Cross, there was no downtime while awaiting tree trimmers to clear a space to work: “We would put them in an area that we knew needed trees trimmed.” He said, “If it was an area that we could deal with, we did some trimming ourselves. We didn't let the tree trimmers in or around the wires any more than we had to.” Both Horton and Brown reported that the linemen might try to catch up on their sleep while a line was being cleared. Brown said, “We would also check the trucks. You get so busy that you sometimes end up neglecting to keep the trucks organized.” Horton reported that they utilized downtime productively: “Often, we'd go over our line trucks and see what materials we were short on. Or we'd check in the area being cleared to see what we would need. And then if there was nothing at all that could be done, every once in a while the guys would take a little cat nap to recharge.”
Although line contractor crews were kept separate in their work, that didn't mean they didn't assist each other at times. Brown said, “When getting material became an issue, sometimes a foreman from another crew would come up and ask if we had hardware that he needed, such as automatic sleeves. I would check and see how many we had and if we could spare a few. We all tried to work together. It was like that there.”
RELATIONS WITH THE HOST UTILITY
The host utility supported contractors and linemen by providing accommodations; staging and providing materials and fuel; assuring safety; and providing general assistance. Horton said, “Entergy took pretty good care of us. We had a good bird dog with us who showed us our circuit maps, made sure we stayed within the safety rules and got us what we needed to do our job. The staging area was good. The food was actually better than some I've had on other storm work.”
Most important for Brown was the safety aspect. “Entergy wanted everyone to go home safe,” he said, adding, “They were as successful as they could be in getting us fuel. Sometimes in storm work things can get pretty confusing. Entergy was pretty organized and had a good grasp of what needed to be done and where they needed us.”
According to Cross, “The most outstanding support was the competence of the man that led us. He was worth his weight in gold. Differences in conductor size and type from what we were used to meant we needed special hydraulic tools and dies and special sleeves for the connections. He would get what we needed or let us know where we could get it.”
For Miller, Mississippi Power's coordination efforts were excellent. He said, “They made sure that we were taken care of, and there was a genuine concern for our safety. However, getting materials — especially in the first four days or so — was difficult. The devastation was so widespread that it took that long before the material started flowing.”
Schmill said, “Although Entergy's resources got stretched thin, which sometimes happens on a big job, and trying to get poles and other major equipment would involve a long wait, living arrangements were good. We had our own tents with us and then got lucky and found a hotel.”
For others, living arrangements meant sleeping in a truck until better accommodations could be arranged. Brown said, “At Lake Charles, Entergy put us up in a tractor trailer set up with bunk beds that were pretty comfortable, although we couldn't sit up in them. We had a mess hall in an open tent. They gave us box lunches for our midday meal. The dinners were good with variety and a better quality food than for breakfast or lunches.”
The scope and amount of devastation from Hurricane Katrina was referred to over and over by the linemen as being overwhelming. Miller said, “I thought I had seen it all before I went down there, but this experience gave new meaning to the word hopeless for me. The people were totally devastated because the first half-mile off the coast was gone. The smell was bad, and we were on guard all the time for dead bodies. Yet, while working in Pass Christian for Mississippi Power, two ladies, like many others there, were worried about us, so they walked about half-mile along the beach one hot afternoon to a first-aid station and brought us back cases of bottled water.”
For Schmill, the line work was the easy part. “The scope of how big it was and the loss of life is what made it a lot more difficult than work I have done before,” he said. Regarding the miles and miles of homes and businesses that would have to be torn down and rebuilt, Horton said, “It almost made me feel numb. It's something I think about to this day.”
Cross said, “To me it was a true national disaster. I knew it was going to be big when it took 7 miles of line trucks on the interstate highway with a National Guard armed escort to get the linemen into New Orleans. And the linemen, who are usually real talkative, not only kept their radios silent, but also remained completely silent themselves as they approached the devastation.”
These are some of the stories of linemen who responded to the call for assistance after Hurricane Katrina. While they are often filled with powerful memories that will remain with them forever, so too will the many people that they helped remember them.