Editor’s Note: More than 50,000 U.S. utility workers helped restore power in Florida after Hurricane Irma. Electric cooperatives from 25 states joined this unprecedented mutual aid effort and sent 5,000 line workers. Fifteen Texas co-ops also dispatched crews to South Texas to help with repairs after Hurricane Harvey. CoServ was privileged to participate in both missions to help our fellow Texans and Americans.
With servants’ hearts and a clear mission, CoServ linemen were among the thousands of power workers who helped restore service after two Category 4 hurricanes left millions of Americans without electricity and caused an estimated $300 billion in damage.
In late August and early September, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma carved paths of destruction along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida and into Georgia and South Carolina.
Cooperation Among Co-ops is one of the Seven Cooperative Principles, and a mutual aid agreement–statewide and nationwide–prompted CoServ to send linemen to assist two electric co-ops in South Texas–San Patricio and Victoria–and two in Florida–Talquin and Clay that requested assistance.
Sending crews to assist after a hurricane is a decision not taken lightly, said Greg Ward, Senior Vice President of Field Operations.
“We make sure our Members’ needs are taken care of first before we assist other cooperatives,” he said. The mild weather that North Texas was experiencing at the time played a big factor, too, allowing resources to be temporarily redirected.
“Co-ops help each other in a time of need.”
Harvey dumped record-breaking rainfall in South Texas when it came ashore Aug. 25. CoServ was among more than 20 Texas co-ops that sent crews to help restore service to more than 160,000 co-op meters.
On Aug. 29, CoServ sent 14 linemen–two crews of seven men each–to assist San Patricio. Later that week, CoServ Operations Superintendent Shea Hassell joined the crews, making the total 15. After work with San Patricio–in the Corpus Christi area–was completed, 10 linemen returned home. Five traveled to the Victoria co-op to help with restoration and repair efforts, returning home on Sept. 5.
Flooded fields, downed power lines, strewn belongings and damaged buildings greeted linemen as they replaced poles and re-strung wire. (In the more rural parts of Victoria County, linemen constructed a 3.5-mile line to serve five members. This same length of line would serve 200 to 300 Members in more densely populated Collin County.)
Six days later, 23 linemen headed south to Florida, where Hurricane Irma swept across the peninsula with high winds and heavy rain beginning Sept. 10. The largest contingent of linemen and fleet vehicles left CoServ on Sept. 11, staying at an Alabama electric co-op for two days to let Irma pass.
The hurricane left more than 8 million people without power in three states, including 1.5 million electric cooperative members. Mud, trees and swamps in heavily forested regions proved to be daily challenges for the crews. Tree trimmers accompanied them wherever they went and, at one point, a boat was needed to access some poles.
CoServ linemen worked 16-hour days to bring power back to residents who were sweltering in the stifling heat without air conditioning.
“These guys will never forget how good it feels to help someone in need or the camaraderie they developed,” Greg said. “They also return as a more cohesive unit, ready to tackle whatever they come across as a team. And that is a good thing for them, CoServ and our Members.”
A lineman for 27 years, CoServ Operations Superintendent Shea Hassell knew what his crews were facing when Hurricane Harvey flooded the Texas coast, leaving many without power. Which is exactly why he decided to join them.
It was Shea’s sixth trip to restore power following a hurricane.
“I went down to check on the guys. I got to San Patricio and worked a half day and we were released,” he said. “Victoria, the next co-op over, needed two service crews.”
The mutual aid trips not only bring electricity back to cooperative Members, they also forge tighter bonds among the linemen.
“You’re all kind of doing the same thing,” Shea said. “We all know it’s going to be long hours. You’re just doing what you’re there to do.”
Experienced linemen like Shea know what equipment might be needed, that a generator likely will be used and to pack lots of snacks to eat in between jobs.
Time, Shea said, passes quickly. “You get focused and look up and it’s getting dark,” he said.
The part Shea enjoys the most is the response from Members who have gone without power for days: “That’s one of the most gratifying things–to see those people’s reactions is pretty special,” he said.
“It’s gratifying that you can make a difference in their lives–knowing you can better someone’s situation by doing what you do.”
Mud, swamp and huge trees everywhere stand out in Bret Turnbow’s mind when describing the Florida landscape.
CoServ linemen spent 11 days helping Talquin and Clay electric cooperatives restore power to residents after Hurricane Irma.
“We trimmed trees, cut limbs and hung wire,” he said, describing the 16-hour days they worked to bring the lights back on.
While moving trees out of the way, they’d run across the occasional wildlife – huge yellow banana spiders were everywhere. And while Texas has them, webs in Florida are thicker, Turnbow said. Since hurricanes often bring floods, they also ran across alligators–five or six–though mostly in flooded areas off highways.
Damage from Irma was widespread across the state and was the second worst that Turnbow has seen in his 24 years as a lineman. Now a CoServ Operations Manager, Turnbow has traveled to five hurricanes, two ice storms and one major brush fire around Possum Kingdom Lake.
Each trip has its unique story. In Florida, CoServ sent its largest fleet and crew ever, he said, with 22 vehicles accompanying the crew of 23.
The linemen stayed in co-op bunk beds and at a golf course where 13 rooms allowed them to sleep two to a room.
“They took care of you,” Turnbow said of Clay Electric Cooperative. “They always had meals there and a lineman led us around.”
People in Florida were particularly thankful for CoServ’s help–the cooperatives with whom they worked and the members whose power was restored.
“They were super nice,” he said. “They’d come outside and tell you ‘Thank you’ and try to shake our hands.”
Carrying on a tradition established by three uncles and his father, CoServ Lineman Mitchell Bridges traveled to South Texas to help pick up downed power lines and change out arms on poles.
All four elder Bridges worked as linemen, with Mitchell carrying on the family trade when CoServ hired him in March 2015. “Uncle Jim was the first to become a lineman and all three younger brothers followed,” he said. His father, Sam, oversees operations at Denton Municipal Electric where all his uncles once worked.
Mitchell was one of 15 sent by CoServ to help electric cooperatives hit hard by Hurricane Harvey. He had heard stories from family about what it was like to help people following a hurricane. Seeing it firsthand made an impact.
“I realized everything people had was destroyed,” he said. Torrential rain, flooding and high winds left belongings strewn as people searched. In Victoria County, Mitchell saw farmers counting baled cotton to see what was salvageable. “A lot of cotton farms were damaged,” he said.
The crew stayed in an oilfield camp set up much like barracks with two beds to a room. The crew awoke at 4 a.m., ate at 4:30 a.m. and were on the road by 5 a.m., returning around 9 p.m. They also brought snacks to eat on the go. “I don’t think we stopped for lunch one time while we were there,” he said.
As they made repairs, residents offered water and drinks. “For the most part, everyone was very appreciative of us being down there,” he said.
Mitchell’s 22nd birthday was Aug. 29–the same day his crew headed south.
“It’s one I won’t forget.”