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Feature

‘It’s Just What You Do’

Hurricane Harvey spotlights hope, heart of statewide co-op family

Ashley Hadley and her mother, Shelia Dierschke, pulled out a white folding table and chairs because the dining room table didn’t have enough space. They set out piles of fried shrimp, hush puppies and all the fixings on Dierschke’s Port Lavaca kitchen counter—all the makings of a family Labor Day feast.

Their guests were hundreds of miles from their own homes, a dozen worn, weary and mud-caked linemen at the end of another in a string of 15-plus-hour days of restoring power in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. They are family, all the same.

“We had them all line up and get food, and we were just kind of serving them,” said Hadley, whose husband, Michael, a Victoria Electric Cooperative lineman, invited the men, his co-workers since the storm hit August 25. Hadley and her parents had for days taken turns providing warm meals in the field for the linemen, who were there from Trinity Valley and Grayson-Collin electric cooperatives, east and north of Dallas, respectively.

“Everybody just kind of pitched in,” Hadley said. Other families provided laundry services and meals, on top of the three meals VEC provided daily for the more than 300 linemen who rushed in to help. “We did whatever we could.”

After the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Texas in decades wrought destruction along the coastal bend and in East Texas, the co-op family did whatever it could to help restore power to some 179,000 and hope to many more. Stories of hope and heart reveal the awesome power of the cooperative spirit.

“That’s what co-ops do,” said David Nerada, service foreman for Victoria EC, which lost power to all 22,467 of its meters during the storm’s 130 mph winds. “We’re a family. You need help? We drop everything and go help.”

Hope

One day before the storm’s landfall, Randy Mahannah, general manager for North Plains EC, anticipated the destruction and asked his linemen stationed in Canadian, in the Texas Panhandle, if they were interested in helping with restoration efforts.

They were prepped and ready the next day. “They sat there all weekend, bothering the line superintendent, wondering when they were leaving,” Mahannah said of his crew that months earlier battled ice storm and wildfire damage on its own system with the help of other co-ops.

Along the coast, San Patricio, Victoria and Jackson ECs mobilized quickly as the storm approached, strengthened and made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane.

Mike Myers, manager of corporate services at Jackson EC, collected satellite radios and reviewed his co-op’s emergency response plan as Harvey moved into the Gulf. “Before we knew it, we were on Page 5,” he said.

Many employees spent nights on cots or air mattresses in their own co-op offices, fielding phone calls and Facebook comments from members and waiting for more help to arrive.

As the storm’s eye passed through Rockport and Refugio, it entered San Patricio EC’s service territory. Operations Manager Albert Gaitan’s Beeville home survived, but “it was devastating to see that some people weren’t so lucky,” he said.

More than 600 outside personnel, from co-ops around the state and private companies, arrived to help the three coastal co-ops, as did supplies from still other co-ops and donations of food and water from grateful members. The storm eventually would affect 15 co-ops with wind and flood damage.

On Monday, August 28, North Plains EC’s Canadian crew finally got the call it hoped for and made the 10-hour drive to San Patricio EC in two parts—the linemen’s chance to pay it forward.

“I can’t tell you how many of them [co-ops] have reached out to us: ‘What do you need? What can we do? We’re sending people. How can we help?’ ” said Nina Campos, manager of human resources and communications at VEC.

For David McGinnis, general manager at Grayson-Collin EC, who made the trip with his linemen, it was just another in a long line of co-ops helping co-ops.

“It’s just what you do,” McGinnis said, “and, like I say, it doesn’t matter if it’s our members here at Grayson…or whoever it is, they’re still members of a co-op, and that’s what we do—help each other out.”

Heart

Keith Stapleton always will remember how great and how eerie it sounded when the rain finally stopped.

“With a hurricane, usually six hours or so and it’s through—it’s gone—but this lasted for six days,” said Sam Houston EC’s chief communications officer.

Harvey made its second and third landfalls in East Texas, dumping unprecedented rainfall measured in feet, not inches. Sam Houston and Jasper-Newton ECs battled hard-to-reach outages that moved with the floodwaters amid wind-weary trees and rain-soaked ground.

One night, around 2 a.m., 18 hours after a Sam Houston EC crew had won the fight to bring a substation back online: heartbreak.

“Fourteen minutes later, a tree falls near that substation on the transmission line and takes power out again,” Stapleton said. “That was what the whole week was like. …You just drop your head, take a breath and say, ‘OK, we’ll keep working.’ ”

Rivers swelled elsewhere, too, taking Jackson EC lineman Jimmie Scott’s Bayside home, which his father built on family land decades ago.

“Everything’s gone,” Scott said. “My roof caved in. Everything was just destroyed.”

But Scott never missed a day of work.

“How can you not stand in awe of someone who is so dedicated to their profession that they will, regardless of their personal tragedy, continue to do their job in a professional manner?” said Jim Coleman, Jackson EC general manager.

On September 10, Hurricane Irma struck Florida, knocking out power to 65 percent of the state before hitting Georgia and the Carolinas. With 99 percent of Harvey-affected co-op meters back up, Texas co-ops answered the call, including Jackson EC, whose weary linemen had just finished restoring their own power.

“The biggest thanks I could give some of my best linemen for working so hard here after Harvey was to let them rush off to Florida to answer the call of another cooperative in need,” Coleman said. “It’s our way.”

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Chris Burrows is a Texas Electric Cooperatives senior communications specialist.