Editor’s note: Outside linemen are dispatched to help repair their sister cooperatives’ lines as soon as possible after a major disaster. Following Hurricane Rita three years ago, cooperatives expressed a need for volunteer assistance with communications as well. They deal with the media and document damage to assist in applying for disaster repair grants. So for the first time ever, Texas Electric Cooperatives asked communicators around the state to join a task force. Many volunteered. Immediately after Hurricane Ike hit the northern Texas coast Saturday, September 13, two volunteers were dispatched—Eddie Albin of Southwest Texas Electric Co-op to Deep East Texas Electric Co-op and Stephen W. Williams of Bandera Electric Co-op to Sam Houston Electric Co-op. Williams sent us daily updates, which we think provide an eloquent account of cooperation among cooperatives.
The contract right-of-way and repair crews began to arrive today. There were well over 200 trucks and 400 to 500 men when I was last at the staging area. The co-op is expecting another 200 trucks before morning. Some other co-op crews are coming, too. It was amazing to watch. Most of these crews were in Louisiana and have not been home in weeks.
Today I was out getting pre-repair photos and videos to help document the hurricane damage at Sam Houston EC, which everyone here calls “SHECO.” The two tent cities that were to go up today were delayed because of logistical issues. Monday will be a big day as we will re-energize the hospital here in Livingston.
As I drove around I saw the impact of no gasoline. I saw only one store equipped to sell gas because it had generator power. There were three police officers keeping the line moving that stretched four or five blocks.
By the tent city location in Coldspring there was a Cowboy Church meeting, and I was able to go and ask them to pray for the linemen as they come to do this dangerous work. They were glad to do so.
Well, I best get some sleep, as tomorrow will be a long day that will start early.
Power out to 99 percent of meters
As of 10:30 a.m. Monday, significant progress has been made in removing trees and rebuilding power lines. More than 1,000 additional personnel are in the field today assisting with the effort. By Tuesday, the total work force will be 2,500.
The Entergy Texas transmission grid, which delivers electricity to Sam Houston EC’s distribution system, was severely damaged. As Sam Houston EC works to clear trees and repair distribution lines, Entergy is doing the same on their transmission system. At this time, 99 percent of Sam Houston EC’s members are without power. Progress is steady. However, some severely damaged areas could be without power for three weeks.
TUESDAY NIGHT, 9/16/08
The goodness of rural people
When I walked up to the office this afternoon there was a sound absent that I had come to expect. The old generator was not running. The biggest news of the day for me was that the office where I have been sleeping now has full power so the A/C is working. Also, a very small section of Livingston and a few other limited locations got power.
Utility crews were busy today. When they are working on a section of line they mark it with an orange tag hanging off the ground jumpers. Those orange tags were dangling from the wires all over the place.
As I drove around, I saw long lines at the few gas stations that had power. Lines were also long at the “PODs.” POD stands for point of distribution. It is where the Federal Emergency Man- agement Agency is giving out ice, food and water. Ice is like gold.
I also saw the goodness of rural people as I watched volunteers hand outice, MREs (meals ready to eat) and water at the Coldspring POD. Coldspring is a small rural community. One of the workers there told me people would just show up and start pitching in to load the stuff into grateful residents’ vehicles. Many of them were local teens who felt compelled to help. This is where “love your neighbor” becomes more than words for them.
It’s also interesting to see that folks are still being friendly at the traffic signals, which are now four-way stops. Occasionally someone who has not been to town will sit at the light not sure what to do. A good deal of the daily traffic is utility trucks or support vehicles with poles, transformers and other equipment.
Sam Houston EC is putting up several hundred crew members at Lake Tomahawk, a Baptist summer camp. It overlooks a nice lake with a cross that reflects in the water at dusk. Some of the crews were out after work playing basketball like they were first-week campers. I don’t know how they found the energy. The camp manager had his extended family there to help feed and host the crews. They were a very welcoming bunch. It felt like family.
The media and co-op members continue to be kind and understanding. Sam Houston EC’s years of fostering trust and good member relations is paying off.
WEDNESDAY EVENING, 9/17/08
Dinner with a song
This assignment has been filled with the unexpected, and I never know when the best jewel of the day will occur. Today it came as the sun was going down. I came dragging in about 7:30 p.m. and went to the feeding area in the very back of Sam Houston EC’s main office.
I sat down with my lasagna in a room filled with about 200 workers, all eating and talking about the day. A tall, slim, older man walked to the end of the serving line and said, “Can I have your attention please?” The room fell silent, and he broke into song. “There ain’t no woman like the one I got …”
He had a delightful voice and sang with conviction. At the end, he said, “This was for you ladies,” and he gestured to the Sam Houston EC employees who have been busting their tails to keep the workforce fed. The room erupted in applause. The ladies totally broke down and cried in each other’s arms.
I later learned that the singer was a preacher. He was hired as a contract employee to run the gas pump attached to a tanker truck. I had seen the man first thing this morning when I drove my truck to have it filled with gas. He was incredibly cheerful so early in the morning.
All Sam Houston EC employees were called to pull a heavy load with this Ike storm. It also brought the same havoc in their personal lives as it did to all members. Some employees were dealing with holes in their roofs, canceled weddings and damaged property at the same time they were expected to do things they had never done and work more hours than ever.
As for progress in the hazardous and difficult job of restoring power, the army of 3,000 line workers made a huge dent in getting the Sam Houston EC system operational. The lights are on in some places, but there is still so much to do.
Well, it’s late and I best clean up and get some rest.
THURSDAY EVENING, 9/19/08
The assignment of a lifetime
I’m heading home in a few minutes. I have taken about 600 still photographs, a couple hours of video and talked with countless employees, contractors and members. I will have logged close to 1,600 miles on my Bandera Electric Cooperative pickup, and most of that in the Sam Houston EC service area.
This was the assignment of a lifetime for me. I have learned how this kind of trial pulls people together. I have a number of fast friends I have lived with during the past six days and I will miss them. It has also been rewarding to see the employees of Sam Houston EC at their best. It is amazing what they are doing here.
But, it will be good to finally take an actual shower, plus have a bed that does not leak air. Each night it was almost a ritual for me to carry my air mattress outside so I could air it up with the compressor I plug into the cigarette lighter in the truck. About the time all the air would leak out, it was time to get up. It was a kind of alarm clock.
Well, I best head west now.
Stephen W. Williams works for Bandera Electric Co-op.