Hurricane Irma: aftermath Area crews return from storm work

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Josh Abbott, left, and Blair Everman, lineman with Allamakee-Clayton Rural Electric Cooperative, were two of 146 Iowa workers who helped restore electrical service along the Florida-Georgia line following Hurricane Irma.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor



n the pre-dawn hours of September 11, a convoy of 46 workers and 26 vehicles from 15 Iowa electric cooperatives left Mount Pleasant, Iowa, for southeast Georgia and northeast Florida. Josh Abbott of Gunder and Blair Everman, Postville, both linemen with the Allamakee-Clayton REC, were part of the group sent to help restore electrical service to thousands of people living along the Florida-Georgia line. 

The Okefenoke Cooperative, which reached out to the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives (IAEC) through its own state group, serves a large area devastated by Hurricane Irma. At the time the Iowa workers were dispatched, a reported 95 percent of the electric system was offline.

“When we arrived, 28,000 out of 35,000 electrical services were disrupted,” said Everman. “By the time we left, that number was less than 100.” He added that most of the problem was caused by tree damage from hurricane-force winds. Workers spent their time clearing away limbs, putting up conductors and repairing damaged poles and lines.

“We worked 16 and 17 hours a day for four days,” Abbott said. “It was hot and humid and the work was hard but the people were so nice. We got plenty of hot food and sweet tea.”

Both men also added that working under the same “bird dog” or local supervisor made their task easier. 

Paul Foxwell, ACREC executive vice president and general manager, explained the process that sent two of his employees to the hurricane-ravaged area.

“The states’ electric co-ops have mutual aid agreements,” he said. “Usually, the co-ops within an area can handle the fallout from natural disasters. But when it’s a large-scale event like Hurricane Irma, the state that’s impacted will ask for help, and that’s what happened here.”

Foxwell added that the IAEC called for two to four volunteers from each co-op.

“We have 12 linemen so four men and two trucks was too much but we wanted to participate because we understood the need,” he continued.

ACREC has 10,000 meters across the two counties it serves. About 95 percent of those are residential. In determining how many workers he could send, Foxwell needed to be mindful of the number needed here to maintain regular service or address any storms that might happen.

Abbott and Everman’s journey started in southeast Iowa where volunteers gathered for a crash course on what to expect when they arrived at their destination. Their safety briefing covered the challenges of working in a swampy area, including the kinds of wildlife the linemen might encounter. Alligators and poisonous snakes are common.

“In addition, working with electricity is very dangerous,” said Jim Wolfe, a job training safety instructor at the IAEC who accompanied the group and wrote about the trip for Living With Energy magazine. “There’s an extra element of danger when you’re restoring power following a storm like Hurricane Irma.” 

Wolfe also wrote that just getting to the worksite was problematic. Highways were choked with people trying to return home after the hurricane to assess its damage.

Everman, who has been at ACREC for 13 years, has worked in the aftermath of a couple of out-of-state ice storms. However, the devastation was nothing compared to what he saw in Georgia. Abbott, a 16-year employee, was a first-time volunteer.  

The RECs were not the only ones who sent crews to Florida. An estimated 18,000 utility crews from 30 states and Canada worked to restore power to people impacted by the storm. Alliant Energy dispatched about 200 Iowa and Wisconsin personnel, including linemen, safety staff, mechanics, support staff and managers. Adam Fette of Elkader was one the area workers who made the trip.

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