Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

TOP STORY >> Workers lending a hand

By SARA GREENE
Leader staff writer

As survivors assess the damage from Hurricane Katrina, Arkansas utility companies are sending employees to help restore electricity to more than one million customers. After hitting the tip of Florida last week, the massive hurricane made landfall again on the Gulf Coast early Monday morning, wreaking havoc and killing dozens of people.

Early Tuesday morning, 39 crew members and twenty-two trucks from First Electric’s Benton, Heber Springs, Jack-sonville and Perryville off-ices left for Washington-St. Tammany Elec-tric Cooperative in Franklinton, La. About 22 of the crew members are from the Jacksonville office.

Washington-St. Tammany Electric Cooperative serves over 46,000 customers north of New Orleans and reported a complete loss of power to all customers at the height of the storm.

“We’ll be down there two weeks at least,” said Larry Hulsey, a First Electric construction foreman. “The hardest part is driving down. Everyone’s anxious to go.”
Hulsey went with First Electric crews to help with extensive and lengthy power restoration projects in Alabama caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Restoring power in the aftermath of a hurricane is a first for some of the crew, like Shawn Taylor, 33, of Lonoke. Taylor said he feels prepared since he has worked restoring power after ice storms and tornadoes.
“We just loaded our trucks with what we thought we might need down there,” Taylor said.

The most valuable piece of equipment each worker has is the personal voltage detector. The device is about the size of a deck of cards and hangs around employees’ necks. When the employee nears a live wire, for instance, one possibly under debris, an alarm goes off.

On a larger scale, Entergy Arkansas deployed 360 employees, about two-thirds of their total workforce, to restore electricity for more than 1.1 million customers.

Entergy spokesman David Lewis said there were about 790,000 customers without electricity in Louisiana and 290,000 in Mississippi.

“This is by far the worst disaster we’ve ever had,” Lewis said. “The largest outage we’ve ever helped with was 270,000 customers just last month with Tropical Storm Cindy in these same states.”

The record prior to Tropical Storm Cindy was 260,000 outages following Hurricane George in 1998.
Lewis estimates it will be well over a month before the power is back on in New Orleans and maybe longer for rural areas. In many places, restoration cannot begin until after the damage has been assessed.

Workers will concentrate on restoring service in areas not inhibited by flood waters or debris.
“Our personnel are working from the Entergy offices in Jackson, Miss. with 4,000 other Entergy employees,” Lewis said. “They will proceed day by day to where they’re needed the most.”

Entergy follows a restoration plan that concentrates on getting service restored to essential customers first, like hospitals, police and fire departments, communications, water, sanitary services and transportation providers.

Then crews turn their attention to making repairs to electrical facilities that will return service to the largest number of customers in the shortest period of time.

Entergy customers in Arkansas may see some lag in services since so many employees are helping restore electricity in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“We request some patience and understanding because we’re shorthanded here,” Lewis said.

“There will be slower response times for non-emergency services such as getting new service connected.”
The American Red Cross estimates 2,000 volunteers will be in the areas providing assistance. Donations to the American Red Cross can be made by calling (800) HELP-NOW or (800) 435-7669 or by visiting www.redcross.org.