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Storm Season

Oct. 10, 2017
Atlantic hurricanes put electrical distributors’ disaster preparedness plans to a series of brutal tests this summer but the industry’s generosity and resilience shine through the storms.

As tropical storms of late summer strengthened one by one into major Atlantic hurricanes and three — Harvey, Irma and Maria — made landfall in the United States and its territories, the people of the electrical industry in the affected areas did what they do best. They battened down the hatches against the storms’ fury and prepared themselves to respond to whatever damage the storms left behind. Devastating winds, torrential rains and historic floods have all come this season, and now the long process of restoration and recovery has begun.


Houston Electrical Industry Begins Long Process of Recovery from Hurricane Harvey

Two weeks after the record-breaking floods brought by Hurricane Harvey, the electrical industry in Houston was still reeling from the impact. After devoting every resource to making sure associates, customers and neighbors were out of harm’s way, electrical distributors, reps and manufacturers began the process of assessing damage and starting the restoration.

Some major thoroughfares on the east side of the Houston metropolitan area were still under many feet of water, but the Houston-area electrical supply chain was already fully engaged in getting needed products into the hands of customers. The road to recovery is expected to be a very long slog.

On the east side of Houston around Beaumont the rivers and bayous weren’t enough to handle the record rains brought by Harvey, said Greg Russell, VP of rep firm Burrus & Matthews. Industrial and petrochemical plants in that area sustained heavy damage, including major facilities operated by Exxon, Valero and Motiva. “We were there expediting CRC shipments from Philadelphia. Wholesale Electric has 36 people working there and a third of those people are displaced. We went over and cooked steaks for them and helped out however we could.”

Such stories of electrical industry people helping each other out, of competitors calling to check on each other, of flotillas of fishing boats and long lines of people volunteering to help with rescues and remediation are a highlight everyone pointed to as a source of hope as the area begins to rebuild.

The eye of the storm came ashore Aug. 25 at Rockport, TX, as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 mph. The real damage came after, as Harvey weakened to a tropical storm but lingered in the area, dropping torrential rain for four days in Houston and areas to the east extending into Louisiana. By official measures Harvey set a new record for rainfall totals with 51.88 inches, the most ever seen in the continental United States from a single storm. Unofficial totals ranged even higher. John Peterson, Houston-based executive VP of global sales for Emerson Industrial Automation, said they measured 56 inches in his zip code, though his home didn’t sustain any damage.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm the first priority was to contact every employee to make sure they were safe, and to help them find shelter if they needed it, Peterson said. Emerson organized and mobilized teams of employees to help those who were affected with remediation — ripping out drywall, pulling up carpet, hauling out furniture and removing the moisture before everything molds. The company shipped in safety equipment and truckloads of its Ridgid wet/dry vacuums.

“We all know many people who have been impacted, so rather than assuming responsibility for just our people and facilities, we’re making sure to get supplies like respirators, masks and gloves available to all our  employees even if they were not impacted so they can help others. We don’t want them going in and breathing mold and toxic fumes,” Peterson said.

Some electrical businesses were spared any damage and were able to get back to work right away, but business was quiet the first few days as customers were short-staffed and moving about the city was hazardous or impossible with many major thoroughfares under a dozen feet of water. By Labor Day weekend, a week after the storm, electrical companies in Houston were working around the clock, contacting customers and suppliers and arranging shipments of product into the area.

“We had four days of sleepless nights while it rained, then once the rain stopped and we started digging out. Since then we’ve been asking people to step up and work long hours. It’s been very demanding,” Tom Hardey of rep agency Enhanced Electrical Sales said. “Labor Day weekend was a blur; we worked all through it. So now we’re making sure our people are OK, not getting burned out, because we’re asking a lot of them.”

Two weeks after the storm Houston’s highways were again full of traffic and most of the city was back in business, which has meant a deluge of work for electrical companies. Truckloads of transformers, wire and cable, water displacement chemicals, temporary lighting, portable cord  and other supplies normally needed to recover from a flood flowed into the area. There are reports of distributors bringing in all kinds of unusual supplies such as washers and dryers to help out their customers.

The most widespread damage was residential. Keith Hessemer, president of Wildcat Electrical Supply, said several of the large office buildings downtown were closed while pump trucks and remediation crews work.

Among the area’s many refineries and petrochemical plants the initial assessments of damage and plans for the best ways to get the plants back to safe operations were a priority, Peterson of Emerson Industrial Automation said. “It’s actually a national security issue, to get gas to the rest of the country, get the refineries back up,” he said. “But safety is at the top of the priority list.”

One major problem now across the flood damaged area is the freight backlog, said Russell of Burrus & Matthews. Several key freight warehouses flooded and orders for products already in the warehouses were taking 7 to 10 days to get delivered, he said. Products usually available in three days were shipping in 21 days.

Russell attributed some of the supply dislocations on a failure to take the storm seriously. “Were we prepared? Absolutely not,” he said. “There’s not one distributor in South Texas that was prepared. There are certain products that lend themselves to disaster recovery. CRC is one of the main ones for recovering from water damage. Nobody had it on the shelf. Extension cords, generators, too. The last one we had, Hurricane Ike, was eight or nine years ago, and each year that goes by they get more lax. That pushes a lot of the inventory responsibility back to reps.”

As Houston’s electrical industry struggled to get everyone back on their feet, they also were keeping a close eye on Hurricane Irma. Houston’s electrical supply chain expected to find it even harder to get what it needed. “CRC said get your orders in now because we’re already seeing big orders from Florida in preparation for Hurricane Irma,” Russell said.


Florida Electrical Industry Credits Planning as Focus Shifts to Recovery After Irma’s Fury

Electrical distributors and reps in Florida watched Hurricane Irma’s path through the Atlantic and the Caribbean with images of Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey fresh in mind. As Irma strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 185 mph and destroyed homes and buildings in the Leeward Islands and the Virgin Islands, meteorologists predicted Irma would make a turn north around Cuba and move into Florida.

Initial projections had the storm following the state’s Atlantic coast. Distributors on Florida’s eastern side prepared for the worst and those on the Gulf coast remained wary — Irma was one of the largest hurricanes ever tracked in the Atlantic and would bring hurricane-force winds spanning the peninsula on both sides. As Irma reached the turning point forecasts quickly shifted. It became clear that the eye of the storm would travel up the state’s Gulf Coast. Irma hit the Florida Keys at Cudjoe Bay as a Category 4 storm with winds of 130 mph, then weakened to Category 3 before it came ashore again at Marco Island and weakened as it proceeded north.

Distributors Electrical Wholesaling reached on both coasts reported similar stories — no substantial damage to their facilities and a keen awareness that it could have been otherwise.

“We have a tried-and-true plan for emergencies of this nature and feel we learn more and are constantly crafting a new plan once we see changes that could benefit us from experiences,” said Derrick Hoskins, president of K&M Electric Supply, based in Riviera Beach with seven locations along Florida’s Atlantic coast north of Ft. Lauderdale. “We take our responsibility serious that we play a crucial part of rebuilding the infrastructure once a storm has passed. It’s of paramount importance we are available before and after the storm for our customers and community. I am impressed by our team. They did a fantastic job prepping for the storm, reporting back to work afterwards, and making sure we were available when the need was great, even in the face of them having items that needed to be tended to personally.”

On the Gulf side, George Adams Jr., president of Electric Supply Inc., based in Tampa, said many years of experience with hurricanes have taught the company not to be complacent. “We thought we would be OK, however, we understand fully that in the science of hurricane projections there are so many variables that it can be difficult to get the forecast right. We knew it could turn on a dime.

“For some of us who had not made plans to evacuate there was the realization that we couldn’t easily evacuate because the hotels were full, there was a shortage of gas and the interstates being backed up,” Adams said. “Fortunately for the people in Tampa Bay area, at least for 99-point-something percent, it wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it was going to be. But we know that us getting off easy was someone else’s worst nightmare.”

Florida electrical distributors have detailed emergency preparedness plans for hurricanes. When Electric Supply established its utility products operation in the mid-1990s it hired a retired official from Tampa Electric Co. to design an emergency preparedness plan, something Adams expected would take a few months. The employee stayed 10 years, eventually running the operation; the preparedness plan ran to more than 30 pages and is still updated every year, Adams said.

Electric Supply’s preparations included taking conduit off the racks in its yard and laying them down where they wouldn’t blow over or become airborne missiles in the hurricane winds. They topped off fuel tanks in all their generators and trucks, implemented plans for doing business after the storm if credit-card processing systems went down, and made sure their satellite phones were charged and in the right hands, Adams said. On the customer side, the company coordinated with utilities to make sure they were stocked on materials that would be needed right after the storm, including transformers, pole-line hardware, cable and anything else for the above-ground grid.

In Florida, hurricane preparations evolve from lessons learned over many years and companies adopt new safety technologies as they become available. After a hurricane in 2005 tore the roof off K&M Electric Supply’s main branch, Hoskins said the rebuilding included hurricane-strength bay doors. He had a plan for sheltering his family in K&M’s main branch where a safe room that houses the company’s servers is rated to withstand winds of 350 mph, but when Irma shifted course that wasn’t necessary.

“We learned years ago not to run from them. There’s no way to evacuate the entire state,” Hoskins said, adding that the long period of recovery is often as difficult as the storm itself. “Everybody forgets — we call it ‘hurricane amnesia’ — they forget about the aftermath. It’s one thing to hunker down and be safe, but then you have this life that’s inconvenient afterward.”

James Yore, principal of Coresential, an electrical rep agency based in Orlando, told EW by e-mail that he expects the state’s recovery to take some time. “Interesting how there are pre-storm concerns, during-the-storm concerns and post-storm concerns,” he wrote. “Pre storm you are trying to make sure everyone has evacuated and is in a location capable of withstanding the storm. During this storm, I learned or maybe was reminded of the tornado potential if you are located on the northeast side of the storm, which I was, being located in Orlando. Post storm: Flooding. They are advising that it could take up to two weeks for the extra water in our retention ponds, fields, lakes and streams to make its way out of our county.”

Soon after Irma passed, distributors in Florida were busy not only arranging shipments and deliveries of equipment needed for recovery but reaching out to their manufacturers and other allies to get basic emergency supplies such as food and blankets into the hardest-hit areas. Adams of Electric Supply looked around for communities that weren’t getting the help they needed, and then worked with wire manufacturer Southwire to provide three semi truckloads of emergency supplies to Ft. Myers and arranged its own shipment of relief supplies to tiny Everglades City, population 402, which had taken the brunt of the storm.

As the Florida electrical industry begins the process of restoring power and rebuilding, it’s with a renewed awareness that the threat of hurricanes never really ends.

“Now we look at Maria and it’s hard to fathom what Puerto Rico is going through, not to mention what the Virgin Islands have been through,” Adams said. “And we’ve got two-and-a-half months left of hurricane season.”


Hurricane Maria Brings Devastation to Puerto Rico’s Power Grid

Some storms bring so much damage that there’s really no way to prepare. Hit by various of the major hurricanes, several islands in the Virgin Islands were left essentially uninhabitable.

Hurricane Maria strengthened to a Category 5 storm two weeks after Irma hit Florida. Puerto Rico took a direct hit that destroyed its entire power grid, leaving all its 3.5 million residents in the dark. As we go to press, Puerto Rican authorities are estimating that it will be months before many of the island’s residents and businesses see their power restored.