NUPUC linemen provide mutual aid in wake of Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida on Sunday, September 10. The Category 4 storm left massive destruction in its wake including more than six million homes and businesses without power.

Roughly 50,000 lineworkers from across the nation converged on the state to help with the historic recovery efforts, dispatched as part of a mutual aid network.

Included in the group was a three-man crew from New Ulm Public Utilities Commission (NUPUC) in Minnesota.

A request for aid 

NUPUC received the request for aid on September 6 from Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association (MMUA) Job Training and Safety Director Mike Willetts. Florida Municipal Electric Association (FMEA) had reached out to MMUA members to assemble a recovery team in anticipation of power and restoration efforts from the impending storm.

“We are fortunate that our Commissioners understand the benefit of mutual aid, and are willing to allow our crews to help out during times of extreme need,” said NUPUC General Manager Pat Wrase.

NUPUC determined it could provide one crew to assist with the effort and still meet obligations locally. On Saturday, September 9, New Ulm linemen Nick Francis, James Monroe and Scott Schneider departed from Rochester along with 42 other linemen and a variety of bucket trucks and equipment from fifteen other Minnesota municipal utilities.

Recovery timeline

After the hurricane hit Florida, American Public Power Association (APPA) reported 6.5 million customers were without power. That number dropped to 5.5 million by September 12, including just over half a million public power customers.

That same day, the Minnesota linemen arrived in Kissimmee, Florida to begin their work. Kissimmee Utility Authority (KUA) reported that at the peak of Irma’s destruction, 53 percent, or 38,000, of their customers were without electricity.

Minnesota’s team joined support personnel from Indiana, Texas and Wisconsin to help KUA rebuild and restore power to customers. Two days later, they headed to hard-hit Lake Worth, located on Florida’s Atlantic coastline just north of Miami.

By September 15, FMEA reported 141,000 public power customers remained without power–approximately ten percent of the state’s total municipal electric utility customers. Three long days later, 99 percent of the state’s public power customers’ electricity had been restored and the MMUA recovery team was scheduled to return home.

In all, the recovery mission lasted ten days.

Different environment, same work ethic

Though armed with years of experience, the environment in Florida presented the Minnesota crews some new work hazards.

“Our men were briefed on everything from portable generators and ‘sugar sand,’ or quick sand, to venomous snakes, killer bees and alligators,” Willetts said.

Despite nature’s best efforts to interfere, the team worked tirelessly and earned high praise for their contributions.

“I received one report saying, ‘Can we request Minnesota crews the next time we have a storm? You guys are the best we have ever seen,'” said Willets. “That’s just awesome–there’s no other word for it.”

Neighbors helping neighbors

Mutual aid is vital to the recovery and success of municipal utilities during emergency response.

In 2013, APPA formed the Mutual Aid Working Group to establish a mutual aid network for public power utilities in the U.S. MMUA and other utility associations across the nation work within this network to enhance communication during preparation for and recovery from disasters.

Participants have access to a step-by-step plan for utilities, network coordinators and APPA to refer to before, and during a disaster to ensure expeditious and organized response. They can also count on rapid, short-term deployment of emergency support from fellow network members.

“All utility systems are exposed to natural disasters, and it’s good to know that if your city is impacted by such an event, the public power community will be there to lend a helping hand,” Wrase said.

NUPUC has been a member of MMUA’s and APPA’s mutual aid network since 2000. This is the first time they have assisted with disaster recovery efforts out of state.