A second group of OPPD workers were sent to Florida to help restore power after Hurricane Irma struck this weekend.
The additional 15 OPPD workers departed early Wednesday morning and are expected to arrive in Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday. On Tuesday, another group of 15 workers were sent from OPPD to Tampa. The OPPD crews along, with 42 contracted tree trimmers from the utility will be assisting Tampa Electric and Jacksonville Electric, both of whom were hit hard by the hurricane.
Each group from OPPD consists of 12 lineworkers, two mechanics, a supervisor and the tree crews.
According to Jacksonville Electric, there are more than 120,000 customers without power there, as of Wednesday morning.
Both groups of OPPD workers met up in Rockport, Mo., and formed a caravan then headed south. The 21-hour trip is the furthest OPPD has sent crews in mutual aid support.
Mutual aid is where other utilities are dispatched to help with power restoration efforts following natural disasters.
OPPD was the recipient of mutual aid in June after a strong summer storm knocked out power to 76,500 customers and caused widespread damage to the transmission system.
OPPD has been matched up with Tampa Electric, who as of Wednesday morning, had more than 191,000 customers without power. Four 3-person crews, plus two mechanics and a supervisor are expected to be deployed from two to six weeks and could end up being sent to different areas after Tampa.
Mo Doghman, Vice President-Energy Delivery and Chief Compliance Officer for OPPD, said the utility is proud to help and acknowledged that some internal work may be delayed in the service territory because it is the right thing to do.
“The damage caused by this hurricane is catastrophic,” said Doghman. “The impacted utilities need all the help they can get right now. We are glad to lend our people and their talents to assist with this massive recovery effort.”
The effort is being coordinated by the Midwest Mutual Assistance Group and all costs incurred by companies providing support will be reimbursed by the utilities receiving help.
Typically, OPPD’s mutual aid efforts are limited to within 500 miles of the service territory, with exceptions made for certain catastrophic events or where crews with unique skill sets are needed.
Before being dispatched to Florida, the furthest OPPD crews had sent crews in mutual aid efforts was in 2012 for Hurricane Sandy, where about 10 million customers in 21 states were left without power.
OPPD’s Jerry Benedict was one of seven cable splicers who went to New York City to help restore power. The city was in need of experienced splicers to help repair underground vaults in the Big Apple. Benedict said there are unique challenges awaiting crews.
“Every system is different and that is part of the challenge,” Benedict, now a Transmission & Distribution field supervisor, said. “Every utility does things a little differently.”
Benedict said a big difference between Sandy and Irma for the crews is that this time, the crews are driving down, whereas Benedict and his co-workers flew out to New York. Among the workers driving down to Florida are two auto mechanics to help care for the trucks.
The long drive to Florida, along with the constant use and the nature of the work they will be doing there, will be hard on the vehicles, said Greg Heine, manager of OPPD’s Omaha Service Center, one of several locations that are sending crews. Heine said the trucks that are being driven down were getting special service Monday night to prepare for the expected wear and tear.
Benedict said the crews will likely be paired with a “bird dog” or someone from Tampa Electric who will accompany OPPD workers to help them get around the unfamiliar city and act as a “translator” since their system terminology will be different than what workers are used to with OPPD.
Heine said that OPPD’s crews will work to help get the main feeder circuits going first before heading into the neighborhoods to do restorations. That’s much like what was done after the June storms struck the Omaha metro area.
“Safety is the number one thing,” Benedict said. “Being gone that long on the road is a hard thing to do. You have to be careful with fatigue. They try and put you up in hotels, but like with Sandy, there might not be hotels available or hotels with power. You may be sleeping in your truck.”
Benedict said they were often moving around and stayed in a swanky hotel on Times Square one night and on cots on a ship’s deck another night.
They worked 13-hour shifts for 13 straight days. Being away from families is also tough.
“We knew the hurricane was coming, but we didn’t know for sure we would be sending anyone,” Benedict said. “You have to tell your wife you may be gone for two weeks or it may be six weeks. You miss out on the ball games and your family’s whole schedule gets mixed up. It’s tough being gone that long.”
Lincoln Electric System and Nebraska Public Power District have also sent crews down to Florida to help.