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A welcome Thanksgiving: BPA's crews return safe from Sandy response
11/29/2012 3:51 PM
BPA crews clear debris in a substation on the New Jersey barrier islands following the storm surge and high winds from Hurricane Sandy.
As the line of vehicles proceeded across the tightly controlled bridge to New Jersey’s barrier islands, the scale of destruction became self-evident.
Cars thrust into living rooms. Boats strewn like toys in the middle of the road. Large sinkholes encroaching into neighborhoods.
And no power. Anywhere.
For BPA foreman Tom Miller and his fellow electricians, four flooded and debris-ridden substations in this apocalyptic landscape would be their workstation from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of their deployment
“Driving out there, you’d see more and more damage as you got closer to the shore,” Miller recalled. “The barrier islands were exactly that – there was damage inland, but the barrier islands took the real brunt.”
BPA would begin deploying 106 employees and contractors to the New Jersey area on Nov. 3 along with 72 pieces of heavy equipment as part of the Department of Energy’s emergency mission to restore power following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. As many as 8.5 million people were left without power across 21 states along the Eastern Seaboard. BPA, for its part, would provide manpower and resources for Jersey Central Power and Light on behalf of its parent company First Energy.
The volunteer crews would be deploying for an unknown length of time – possibly up to two months, affecting families during a season of holidays.
Still, for BPA energy efficiency representative Mary Beth Evans, there was no question her husband, Jared, a lineman, should go.
“There was little decision making – when a job comes up like that and he’s called out, he goes, and we make it work,” Evans said.
This deployment would differ from previous emergency responses in the Pacific Northwest for both the crews and the families.
“We didn’t know exactly where they were going or where they were staying,” Evans said. “There were so many unknowns that it was a little scary.”
NEXT STOP: THE JERSEY SHORE
That process of getting the men and equipment nearly 3,000 miles from Olympia and Spokane to the eastern shores of New Jersey proved no small task.
“We weren’t exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into,” said Steve Goins, construction and maintenance services manager and the leadership embed for the deploying crews. “We’ve never done something like this on this scale before.”
Enter the U.S. Air Force and a bevy of C-5s and C-17s. Three waves of personnel and equipment would fly out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Olympia and Fairchild Air Base in Spokane.
“The military was awesome,” Goins said. “They were excited – polite, helpful, calm – in the way they were instructing us.”
Each line truck and generator was measured as airmen developed a meticulous plan to load the aircraft.
“It was quite the process – by the time we took off and landed – it was a non-stop, 24-hour process – some folks would lay out on the ground and sleep on the aluminum deck in the plane next to their vehicles,” Goins said.
Once on the ground, the crews would spread out across a large swath of the Garden State over the next few days.
The linemen, normally working in a transmission role, would adapt their processes to provide distribution support on an individual house and neighborhood level.
“IT WAS JUST A COMPLETE MESS”
Debris, including a surfboard, was found in a substation on the New Jersey barrier islands and gathered for removal by BPA crews.
The 31 substation electricians sent would face a different task. All four substations serving the New Jersey barrier islands had been knocked out during Hurricane Sandy and JCPL was anxious for assistance.
“They were hugely relieved,” Goins said of the resource-stretched utility that was responding to a statewide disaster. “It was almost two weeks into the storm and they didn’t have a clue how they were going to repair the stations. The water line was 3-and-a-half feet up in the substations. It’s not good for a substation to be underwater.”
But with no power, limited access and austere conditions, Goins and his small team of managers would be busy simply making sure the team had the tools it needed to accomplish its job.
“We literally went to a Home Depot on the mainland to buys rakes and brooms to clean up the debris around the substations before we could even get into them,” Goins said. “As we got there, it was just a complete mess.”
Miller agreed, drawing on the perspective at the Ortley Beach Substation.
“The substation had been pretty well washed out – the big thing was the amount of debris in the substation itself,” he said. “The water from the storm surge had pushed the front fence down and this huge amount of debris floated in there and got trapped. Photo albums, surfboards, underwear – you name it, it had floated into that substation.”
During the storm, the islands’ sewage systems had backed up. And when they began clearing out debris, there were still some 29 people missing or unaccounted for on the islands.
“You didn’t know what you were going to find in that pile of stuff,” Miller said.
And the exterior debris only portended what lay inside the substations’ structures. In all, more than 20 dump truck loads of debris would be cleared out.
The crew then split into four teams to tackle different components or buildings in the substation.
WATER: “HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE”
A highwater mark on the wall of a substation on the New Jersey barrier islands shows some of the impact of the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. BPA crews worked to remove the mud and debris from the substations as well as dry out, test and repair the equipment as needed.
While Jersey Central Power and Light provided a rough outline of what it hoped BPA might accomplish at the substations, the specifics were left up to the crews on the ground.
“They let us take the bull by the horns and do what we do best, which is respond to emergency outages,” Miller said. “That worked out really well as we had the latitude to jump in there and make it happen.”
All of the equipment in the substations would need to be cleaned, repaired or rebuilt – and in some cases – replaced altogether.
“We were cleaning up until the very last day we were there,” Miller said. “The more you dig into the substation, the more you’d find water damage got here, there and everywhere.”
To facilitate the work on the darkened island, the crews brought in portable emergency lighting. As work progressed, they were able to install a big generator to power up the substation.
Then came the real hurdle.
“Everything had gotten so wet – above and below the waterline,” Miller said, noting that the marine climate and condensation only added to the problem created by the storm surge. “That was probably the biggest battle: pumping in enough heat to dry out the structures.”
Luckily, the substation’s own heating system survived the storm. Between that and portable heaters, each piece of equipment needed to be thoroughly dried so it could be tested for functionality.
Throughout the work of the substation electricians or the line crews, safety remained the top priority.
“These crews deal with emergency response all the time – they’re used to emergency response,” said Dana Wolfe, a safety and occupational health manager who deployed with the men.
Despite the challenging environment and sheer volume of work, there were no safety incidents for BPA during its Hurricane Sandy response.
“They did a great job responding and staying focused and working safe and doing what they could to help out,” Wolfe said.
As the days progressed, the nature of the response changed. On Nov. 9 at midnight, funding for the mission from the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to an end. BPA entered into a mutual aid agreement with First Energy to continue working on Jersey Central’s behalf. This ensured no cost from the deployment would come back on BPA or its ratepayers.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS?
Still, Goins could see the finish line on the horizon. The number of assignments for the line crews were diminishing and, with the work accomplished by the substation electricians, JCPL was in a far better position to bring those structures back on line.
“It’s run its course. Let’s get home and let’s get back to our families,” Goins said, noting there was a small window of time to enable a return before the Thanksgiving holiday. “It’s impressive what we did, but we still have a power system back home that we have to maintain. We’ve got people covering for us that could use a break, too.”
That came as welcome news for Evans. During her husband’s deployment, she’d kept in touch with Jared through nightly calls.
“We tried to talk once a day, but he was working really long hours,” she said. “We would literally talk for five minutes and then he would go to bed to get rested.”
She had even come close to buying a plane ticket to New Jersey to see her husband on the holiday.
Goins and the management team developed a staggered stand down with crews driving back. All workers were demobilized between Nov. 17 and Nov. 18. The final employees returned Nov. 21 in time for Thanksgiving with their families.
“I’m just extra grateful and thankful for him being home and being safe,” Evans said. “With all they’ve seen and gone through, I think we are all a little more thankful for having a warm home and bed to sleep in and for having power.”
For Miller, he returned in the late hours of Nov. 19 to his wife and his 1-year-old daughter, Madeline.
“When I picked her up for the first time Tuesday morning, I don’t think she quite knew what to do with me,” Miller said. “But she hugged me for a good 20 to 30 minutes before she even made another sound.
“That made it all worth it."
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