Getting Electricity Back to the Gulf Coast

By Ron Scherer writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 2005 | Go to article overview

Getting Electricity Back to the Gulf Coast


Ron Scherer writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Heat. Humidity. Fifteen- to 16-hour days. Not to mention snakes and high-voltage wires.

Jeff Malaby knows that conditions will be tough as he and thousands of other electric utility workers head to the Gulf Coast to restore power in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. But repairing the damage to the electrical system is vital for the region to regain its footing.

Without power, essential services - from sewage plants to hospitals - can't operate. Police officers are unable to recharge their phones. The need is also pressing to repower the giant refineries that supply an important portion of the nation's gasoline. And at some point, the crews will start the long process of connecting homes so that air conditioners and dehumidifiers can run again.

"Electricity is always a priority in disasters," says Jane Bullock, a former chief of staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and now an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management. "For essential functions, it is just necessary."

The process is likely to be long. Some 2.8 million customers lost their power in the region. And it's not just a matter of restringing electric wire as crews did in Florida after Katrina passed through there.

"I expect to see complete devastation, and our efforts will be to completely rebuild the lines," says Mr. Malaby, a Dominion Virginia Power worker who just finished leading a team of 50 in south Florida.

But utility companies, particularly those in storm-prone areas, have considerable experience rebuilding the electrical system. They usually start with a broad assessment of damages, says Ken Hall, director of security, transmission, and distribution operations at the Edison Electric Institute in Washington: "They need to determine what needs to be replaced, to determine whether the power lines were blown down or something landed on them."

Mr. Hall says the normal process is for some crews to work on the transmission system - that is, the large voltage lines transporting electricity from the generating station to the substation. These lines are typically mounted on large metal towers that tend to survive storms better than the wooden poles moving electricity to residential and commercial customers. …

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