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Photo: Prairie Energy Cooperative
 

In the electric utility industry, Mother Nature’s worst brings out our best, and that certainly was true for Iowa’s electric cooperatives working in the South following the destruction of Hurricane Irma. Words like dedication and hero come to mind to describe the linemen who worked in horrible conditions for long hours to restore the power to thousands of co-op member-owners along the Georgia-Florida line.

Thanks to the crews who were there for sending us these snapshots from the storm.

 

This time, it was our turn to help

“Cooperation among cooperatives” is one of the seven core principles that guide all electric cooperatives across the country, and it includes providing mutual aid to other electric cooperatives in need. All of Iowa’s electric cooperatives have been asked multiple times over the years to assist out-of-state co-ops with storm recovery assistance, and there have been plenty of times when crews from out-of-state co-ops traveled here to help too.

These Iowa electric co-ops sent crews and equipment to assist their fellow co-op, Okefenoke REMC, in Georgia:

  •    Access Energy Cooperative (Mt. Pleasant)
  •    Allamakee-Clayton Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Postville)
  •    Chariton Valley Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Albia)
  •    Clarke Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Osceola)
  •    Consumers Energy (Marshalltown)
  •    East-Central Iowa Rural Electric Cooperative (Urbana)
  •    Eastern Iowa Light & Power Cooperative (Wilton)
  •    Farmers Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Greenfield)
  •    Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives (Urbandale)
  •    Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative (Estherville)
  •    Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative (Marion)
  •    Midland Power Cooperative (Jefferson)
  •    Prairie Energy Cooperative (Clarion)
  •    Southern Iowa Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Bloomfield)
  •    T.I.P. Rural Electric Cooperative (Brooklyn)  

 

A firsthand perspective from someone who was there:

Cooperation among cooperatives was on full display following Hurricane Irma

BY JIM WOLFE

Last month, 46 linemen from 15 electric distribution cooperatives in Iowa convoyed to the Florida-Georgia line to help a fellow electric cooperative restore power in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Initial estimates at Okefenoke Rural Electric Membership Corporation indicated that 95 percent of its electric system was offline.

Once we received the call for help from Okefenoke REMC, the safety staff at the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives immediately began planning logistics for the 1,000-plus-mile trip to Georgia and started making calls to member cooperatives requesting linemen and equipment for a commitment of up to 2 weeks. Unsurprisingly, Iowa’s co-ops filled the requests with the support of their managers, boards and employees that same day. In fact, by Sunday, Sept. 10, 46 linemen and vehicles had gathered in Mt. Pleasant at Access Energy Cooperative for a situation overview and extensive safety briefing before the long journey.

Many challenges were discussed during the safety briefing, including what kind of wildlife our linemen could encounter in Georgia, including alligators and venomous snakes. In addition, working with electricity is very dangerous, and there’s an extra element of danger when you’re restoring power following a severe storm like Hurricane Irma.

More importantly, we all clearly received the message from statewide safety and loss control director John Dvorak that returning home safely was our No. 1 priority.

“These linemen are happy to go out and help those in need, but we also need to make sure we bring them back safely to their families when power is restored,” he said. 

The Iowa convoy rolled out early in the morning on Monday, Sept. 11. For me, this day of national rememberance also was filled with excitement and eagerness to hit the road and help those in need, just as many across the U.S. had responded after Sept. 11, 2001.

Just getting to southeast Georgia proved to be quite a project in itself. We stopped abruptly in Atlanta, Georgia, as thousands of Floridians were trying to make their way back home with whatever they could pack into their vehicles during the evacuation. This caused the interstate system to come to a grinding halt and forced us to make our way east across the Georgia countryside to Okefenoke REMC.

Our convoy of 26 vehicles finally arrived Tuesday night, Sept. 12, and we were fed by a church congregation that cooked enough food for an army. Then we drove to a camp a few miles away for a short night of sleep.

For the next 4 days, our crews arrived at the co-op at 6 a.m. and worked until 9 p.m. or later – in addition to travel time. We dealt with heat, humidity, mud and fatigue, but Georgia hospitality made it bearable. Okefenoke REMC assembled armies of employees and volunteers to cook three meals a day for more than 185 people.

As crews made their way across southeast Georgia and northeast Florida repairing damaged lines, poles and equipment, they were thanked by all. Residents who were without power and other essentials for several days offered linemen food, water and hugs, inviting them into their homes and showing a genuine appreciation for their help. State, county and local law enforcement provided help with traffic control for some of our crews, which was also greatly appreciated.

I had the opportunity to see every angle of this disaster and the relief efforts following it. Iowans dropped everything and responded to those in need, and our Midwestern work ethic impressed everyone at Okefenoke REMC. I was awestruck by the armies of volunteers who went the extra mile to keep our people safe and welcome them, even as they dealt with damage to their homes or separation from family members who were evacuated.

And I’ll never forget the co-op members who would scream “hallelujah” as their power was restored. The staff at Okefenoke REMC is as committed to their members as we are, and I believe that if we’re ever in need of help, the people of Georgia will gladly answer the call and make the journey north.  

Jim Wolfe is one of three job training and safety instructors at the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.

 

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