Doing the Mutual Aid Dance
Originally published May 8, 2013
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Jay Puklavetz headed into work at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power one Monday like it was any other day. He’d been doing it for 27 years.
After he arrived in his office at the Hope Street building, the 52-year-old electric services manager said he expected to check in with his direct reports and talk about tasks for that day in the mild-weathered, Los Angeles autumn.
Instead, Puklavetz began a long chain of phone calls with other electric utilities in California and some in the northeastern United States. The calls rang back and forth through the week and into the weekend. Five days after he'd made initial contact, Puklavetz sent 62 of his employees more than 2,000 miles east to Long Island, N.Y.
Hurricane Sandy had hit land that Monday. The storm came up the East Coast and landed in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012. It caused an estimated 8.5 million power outages, among other disasters. In the aftermath, about 67,000 lineworkers traveled from utilities throughout the United States to restore power in the pummeled East Coast cities and towns.
Some of the lineworkers from the South had not worked in snow and were greeted by nearly three feet of it. Many had nowhere to sleep. Hotels were booked for miles surrounding the affected region. Instead, the workers called their utility trucks home. After they restored power in residential neighborhoods, some lineworkers report they were thanked with pizzas, others with cases of beer. But as heart-warming as it sounds, disaster-relief is not always so. Things can go terribly wrong.
The aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina tarnished the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s reputation with scandal: mismanagement, poor preparation and extreme confusion surrounding government roles. Experts expect super storms to increase in frequency, but Sandy showed that these challenges to seamless mutual aid still exist.
Meanwhile, in the sunshine
Puklavetz was not the only utility manager in a sunny state preparing to send maintenance staff hundreds or thousands of miles away. In Orlando, Fla., Wayne Zimmerman recalled he was preparing to send 27 of the utility’s 70 lineworkers to New Jersey.
Zimmerman said he received a call through the Florida Municipal Electric Association before the storm even hit land. The association asked if the utility could put crews on standby to assist in the Northeast. And so the crews waited.
The post-Sandy mutual aid experience underscored the need for better planning and coordination. Much of the confusion that surrounded Katrina efforts remains unsorted.
When a major disaster occurs, the state typically will ask who is available to provide mutual aid, said Tim Trudell, the utility’s spokesman. “Utilities raise their hands. Then they stand by. That’s when you start looking for some indication of when you might get the call.”
But sometimes, the call doesn’t even come.
Arnie Boughner was ready to make the call, he said. As the electric department manager for Easton Utilities in Maryland, Boughner coordinated with other utilities in the state before the storm hit. When Sandy was still a tropical storm, meteorologists thought it might travel up the Chesapeake Bay.
“Had the eye of the storm come up the Chesapeake Bay, things would have been very different,” Boughner said.
Had that been the case, utilities in Wisconsin and Georgia were prepared to come to the small town’s aid. Boughner said he was forced to book utilities from so far away because everyone in the region was already committed either to protect their own territories or help others to the north.
At about 5 a.m. on Oct. 29, the eye of the storm passed to the east of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Boughner went to his phone, he recalled. He texted his contacts in Wisconsin and Georgia. Their crews were off the hook—for the trip to Maryland, at least.
“A couple hours later, when they woke up I guess, they said they were glad Easton was spared,” Boughner said. “They said, ‘We’re always available to help.”
Doing the dance
In Washington, D.C., federal officials were also watching the storm closely. At FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center, representatives from trade organizations joined politicians and emergency response coordinators in what became the situation room for the storm.
Inside the fluorescent-lit FEMA offices, Mike Hyland bounced between federal officials and other utility coordinators. Hyland, senior vice president-engineering services, for the American Public Power Association, represented about 1,500 lineworker crews from more than 120 municipalities who were responding to the disaster.
Hyland communicated through cell phone calls and text messages to lineworkers and state officials who were on the ground or preparing to move toward the affected region. How many crews needed lodging? Who needed fuel? Who was already on the scene restoring power?
“We did this kind of dance,” Hyland said.
Coordinators in the situation room aimed at all costs to avoid what happened after Hurricane Katrina, Hyland said. Many utility workers who headed toward New Orleans were turned away. There was no lodging. They might not have enough fuel. The region was already saturated. In a sense, Sandy relief was a success, Hyland said. At the same time, it exposed the many holes that still exist in the process.
Meanwhile, in California, Puklavetz was still wondering if his crews would deploy to the East Coast. After he volunteered to send five line crews — a total of 62 employees and 39 trucks—the Los Angeles utility was on standby.
“They basically put us on a waiting list,” Puklavetz recalled.
He spent each of the following days making calls to the Long Island Power Authority and the other western utilities that were planning to send crews east.
On Saturday at 2:30 p.m., Puklavetz was at home. He finally got the call.
“As of Friday, we still hadn’t gotten a concrete time of when we would be leaving,” he said. “It had already been almost a week since the storm hit. It was kind of like, we went through all this effort, and at that point, we weren’t sure if we would even be going.”
But Sandy victims needed the Los Angeles crews. Military transport aircraft awaited them at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif., to transport the crews and their trucks to Long Island. After five days in a holding pattern of daily conference calls, Los Angeles lineworkers were heading to the flooded East Coast to help restore power.
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