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Lessons learned during derecho recovery hastened restoration after Sandy

by on April 9, 2013

(Story by Stephen J. Ostrander)

While many in the nation focused on the downside of utility restoration efforts after last summer’s devastating “derecho” storm (overlooking the ferocity, velocity and unpredictability of the storm), John Rayburn and others at AEP instead examined what worked well, with an eye on improving preparedness and recovery efforts for the next weather disaster. 

Rayburn, transmission line manager in Charleston, West Virginia, intended to test the group’s insights and conclusions in a “storm preparedness drill.” But that ‘trial run’ turned into ‘activation’ when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the Mid-Atlantic states and dumped two feet of snow in parts of AEP territory in late October. AEP Transmission’s preparedness for that storm resulted in a speedier, better-organized and injury-free recovery, explained Rayburn, who recently shared an analysis of the two storm restoration efforts for senior leaders.

The June 29 derecho storm cut power to nearly 1.4 million customers.

Derecho last June hit ‘fast and furious’

Without warning, the freakish derecho storm “hit us fast and furious,” explained Rayburn, cutting power to nearly 1.4 million AEP customers June 29, 2012. Starting as a small storm near Chicago, the derecho, or land hurricane, widened conically as it sped southeasterly across AEP’s eastern footprint with blizzard-force gales that splintered trees, snapped utility poles and launched debris for miles until it lost steam in the Atlantic Ocean.

The damage to AEP Transmission facilities that day may have been the worst in the company’s 100-plus year history: 489 broken transmission poles (418 in Ohio alone) resulted in outages to 261 transmission lines and 424 stations. AEP crews and contractors totaling more 1,100 battled scorching heat and fierce follow-up storms for 16 days to restore power to every customer.

After the derecho recovery, Rayburn and others examined the restoration effort to improve the next response to severe weather. In brief, they learned the key ingredients of an efficient restoration are collaboration, cooperation, communication and preparedness.

Morning conference calls built unity

“What really was successful for restoration after the June 29 storm was the interface call,” said Rayburn, referring to the 8 a.m. conference calls every morning with Transmission Dispatch Centers (TDC), Distribution Dispatch Centers (DDCs), Transmission Operations, Distribution Operations, key customers and other stakeholders, such as AEP forestry personnel, station managers and right-of-way agents.

“It was very important. Everybody knew what each person was going to do. Everybody got on the same page; and if decided we had to steer the boat in a different direction, that’s what we did. It was very productive,” Rayburn said.

The ‘interface’ call was akin to a morning huddle that evaluated progress and assessments, established daily priorities, set practical goals, discussed assignments, and managed materials, resources and logistical support. The calls built cooperation and unified action plans.

TLEs played important roles

Adding transmission line engineers (TLE) to the frontline restoration team improved communications and recovery speed.

“They (TLE) were in our war room, working side-by-side with our storm coordinators,” said Rayburn. “They were so beneficial. They became members of our storm restoration team; and paid big dividends. They understood the language, and knew the specific materials we needed, and where to find them. They had a great attitude, which was contagious; and just what we needed.”

The TLEs helped to solve problems, answer questions regarding use of materials and equipment (conductors, guy wires, poles) and eliminate structure and engineering errors.

AEP’s strategy stresses preparedness, specifically pre-positioning restoration assets in key locations, before storms strike.

Preparedness leads to safe, efficient recovery

Unlike the unforeseen stampede of derecho, which surprised everybody, the late October hurricane – later called Superstorm Sandy — had been tracked and monitored for days, giving AEP time to prepare for its punch. Rayburn’s new storm recovery plan would be tested by Sandy.

The strategy stressed preparedness, specifically pre-positioning restoration assets in key locations before the storm struck. The assets included helicopters, pilots, crews (including contractors, tree cutters), bucket trucks, bulldozers, materials, equipment, even fault finders, devices that determine the location of faults on transmission structures. Rayburn parked a helicopter in the truck bay at Charleston; and pre-positioned a TLE in the Roanoke and Charleston offices.

“We were ready to roll when the storm came,” he said.

On October 30-31, Superstorm Sandy buried parts of West Virginia in two feet of snow, and up to a foot in parts on Virginia and Kentucky. That was an unprecedented amount of snowfall for autumn. However, the lessons learned from the derecho and the pre-positioning paid off.

Since fog and heavy winds after the storm prohibited aerial assessment for days, AEP Transmission relied on the pre-positioned fault finders to pinpoint damage.

“They (fault finders) were able to help us assess and locate damage until the helicopters could fly,” Rayburn said. “Getting them ready ahead of time was important.”

From → News From AEP

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