Coronavirus

Restoring Electricity After a Hurricane or Other Disaster Will Be Very Different Because of Coronavirus

By Ron Brackett

July 01 2020 07:50 AM EDT

weather.com

Why You Could be Without Power a Lot Longer this Hurricane Season

At a Glance

  • Utility crews have already started following new procedures developed to deal with COVID-19.
  • The days of hundreds of linemen gathering in one place are gone.
  • Fewer crews may be crossing state lines after a disaster.

Linemen and other members of utility crews have always taken extra precautions when they respond to power outages after big storms, wildfires and other disasters.

This year, they have another danger to contend with: the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's going to be challenging," Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for Duke Energy told weather.com.

COVID-19 has already affected day-to-day operations at Duke Energy, which has 7.7 million retail customers in North and South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Changes in procedures made to respond to social distancing and personal safety requirements will also apply during disaster recovery operations, Brooks said.

(MORE: Fauci Warns 100,000 People Per Day in U.S. Could Get Coronavirus)

"We've been working on storm response in a coronavirus world for several months now," he said.

Duke Energy is conducting more briefings online. Crew members are dispatched from their homes rather than meeting at the office and going to an outage site.

If social distancing isn't possible, crews wear masks, Brooks said. Crews travel in smaller groups.

The utility has also worked to eliminate the use of paper where possible to cut out one more thing employees would have to touch, he said.

A natural disaster, however, will require even more change.

A fleet of utility bucket trucks drives along West New Bern Road on September 16, 2018, in Kinston, North Carolina, after Hurricane Florence. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A fleet of utility bucket trucks drives along West New Bern Road on September 16, 2018, in Kinston, North Carolina, after Hurricane Florence.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

After a hurricane, for example, workers from utilities all across the country often headed for the states that had been hit. Hundreds of people gathered in central locations for daily briefings and meals. They crowded available hotel space.

Much of that will be done differently now that the coronavirus is a threat, Brooks said.

Some of the changes were tested in April when a tornado outbreak slashed across the South over Easter weekend. More than 1 million homes and businesses lost power as a result of the outbreak.

"The storms caused lots of downed trees and damage to our systems," Brooks said. "We did implement our new strategies then."

A big change was having crew members stay in separate hotel rooms, rather than share, he said.

Crew members were screened for COVID-19 symptoms before deploying, and they could request a test at anytime while on assignment.

Instead of having a large number of employees in one facility, Brooks said, the company operated a virtual storm response center. Customer assistance agents, for example, worked from home.

Instead of having two people in the field, damage assessors at the scene sent images to a colleague at home.

"I think that there are a lot of things we identified as efficient ways to do business and protect employees and customers," Brooks said. "These new technologies demonstrate ways to be as effective or more effective, and we need to pay attention to them."

Other ways of protecting crew members include requiring them to travel with their own personal protective equipment, such as masks.

(MORE: New Strain of Swine Flu Could Be The World's Next Pandemic, Researchers Say)

In addition to booking workers in separate rooms, Duke Energy might block out an entire floor of a hotel so crews can remain separate from other guests.

The Red Cross and some state and local officials are already considering hotels and motels as potential alternative shelter sites for residents forced to evacuate from their homes — rather than sending lots of people to previously designated shelters.

Brooks said if hotels are filled, utility crews could use the school gyms or other buildings that aren't being used and set up cots there.

Utility workers repair the electrical grid after Hurricane Michael on October 16, 2018, in Panama City, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Utility workers repair the electrical grid after Hurricane Michael on October 16, 2018, in Panama City, Florida.
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Also, crews could be dispatched more regionally. That would keep them closer to home and they could return to their homes at the end of the work day.

Daily work and safety briefings can be done remotely.

Mealtime will be handled differently, Brooks said. Instead of large feeding tents where everyone gathers, crews might drive through and pick up a box lunch.

And as much as crew members appreciate residents stopping to talk and say thanks or drop off a snack or bottled water, the workers may now hang signs asking them to keep their distance, Brooks said.

All of these changes could mean fewer crews traveling long distances from other states to help their fellow utilities. Fewer crews and other changes could also translate into longer restoration times.

After Florida Power & Light Company recently completed its two-week storm preparedness drill, President and CEO Eric Silagy told CNN, "While we are committed to restoring power to customers as quickly as possible following a hurricane, I am not willing to sacrifice safety for speed. The No. 1 priority of every employee and contractor working to restore power is to return home safely to loved ones." he said.

Brooks said, when crews are working after a disaster they realize "power is an absolute necessity." Despite the coronavirus, "we've got to make sure we can provide the same level of response to protect employees and our customers."

For the latest coronavirus information in your county and a full list of important resources to help you make the smartest decisions regarding the disease, check out our dedicated COVID-19 page.

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