When the lights go out on broadway…

It was a seedy little hotel, the kind adulterers and drug dealers rent by the hour, but we had contracted for a whole wing for as long as we needed it. I was to ask at the front office, but the office was locked and the city had posted a sign stating that the building was not fit for human habitation. I took a few step back and looked around. Quiet. When I looked up, I saw a bed sitting on the roof. That wasn’t the roof though. The second floor had been peeled away starting three rooms down from the road.
I work for an electric utility that delivers power to two and a quarter million customers in south Texas. Hurricane Ike left ninety-six percent of those customers in the dark. It took four days to restore the majority of the distribution lines and substations, returning power to nearly a million customers. The remainder of the effort took another two weeks and cost over half a billion dollars. We have had more practice with this sort of thing than most other parts of the country, but all utilities approach restoration the same way:
First, secure downed lines and restore service to vital infrastructure, hospitals, waste and water treatment facilities, government facilities, and so on.
Second, restore major lines, fuses, and key distribution infrastructure.
Third, clear debris from the distribution system. In our case, this required an army of 5,000 tree trimmers who could not start work until day five.
Fourth, restore local distribution. For us, this required 7,000 linemen, the vast majority on loan from other utilities throughout the country as part of prearranged mutual assistance agreements. Key personnel began triage earlier, but for the most part, this effort did not begin until day six.
Fifth, repair individual transformers, circuits, and drops to restore power to individual buildings.
Restoration starts at the power plants and moves out into the distribution system. Doing it any other way will get people killed and damage key infrastructure—making the effort take even longer. Every component must be isolated and tested before it can be energized. Improperly installed generators and fire hazards must be cleared. Restoration must follow these steps, and no matter the resources dumped on the problem, it can only move so fast.
As in New York, we had public outcry starting on the third day, mostly from residents who had yet to see any linemen in their neighborhoods. In our case, though, the mayor and county commissioner appeared with representatives of our management to assure the public that help was coming. Seventy-five percent of service was restored within ten days (four days after linemen went to work). Complete restoration took 18 days.
During this time, our company established and managed five staging areas around the city. We provided food, fuel, supplies, laundry, medical care, ice, and logistics to what was, in fact, a small army. I drove past one of these on my way to my alternate work site at a nearby power plant. The roads were choked for miles with pole trucks. The air was orange with diesel exhaust.
Hundreds of office workers rode with linemen and trimmers. They acted as spotters and talked to customers so the crews could focus on work. In the south, people don’t throw eggs, they make lemonade (and sometimes cookies), but recovery is no time for southern hospitality; we have work to do. Crews worked from two hours before sunrise to dusk, every day. We fed them and watched over them. I was assigned a tree trimming crew from some town in New Mexico I had never heard of. I was to report and help solve any problem they might have. The missing roof, surprisingly, was not a problem. The hotel staff moved into a room in one of the wings and our crews moved in next door. And yes, we contracted every available hotel room in the region—something that people also complained about at the time.
Today, I watched in disgust as New York Governor Cuomo stood before the cameras fanning the flames of dissent that always follow a disaster, playing the protector who will make those misfits at Con Ed move faster. Really? They say they can restore power in a week. If they can do that, my hat’s off to them. We couldn’t do it, and I’m absolutely sure that no utility on this planet is better at recovery than we are. We also don’t have miles of underground lines to contend with—and those take much longer to repair.
By the way, our recovery cost half a billion dollars. The rate payers will pay this off, a little bit each month, for the next several years. It would cost far, far more to maintain a larger staff of linemen to sit around idle until they are needed. And guess what, when they were finally called for, they wouldn’t be able to start work until day six. That’s the way it’s done.
If Mr. Quomo is really interested in helping the voters, he should let the power company do its job by focusing on his own, and right now, that’s mostly appealing for calm and patience.