Repair crews with Entergy Arkansas work to restore power along a section of Highway 165 and surrounding areas north of Allport, Ark., on April 16. Utilities are requiring repair crews to take additional safety precautions, such as wearing face coverings, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19 is creating logistical challenges for utilities along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. But the utilities say they have adapted their plans enough to ensure their recovery efforts will not be hampered.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has forecast that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season will likely be busier than usual and could include up to six major Category 3 or higher storms.
To prepare for this hurricane season, the utilities hold regular meetings with each other through regional mutual assistance groups. They also have stocked up on supplies, lined up more lodging and staging options, and adapted their practices based on lessons learned from a power outage event in April.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that if we were to get a big storm to really impact our service territory, the overall delays due to COVID-19 precautions will be minimal," said Rick Riley Entergy Corp.'s senior vice president of distribution operations and asset management.
To limit the spread of the virus during storm recovery efforts, utilities plan to adopt the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended safety, social distancing and health screening measures. The utilities will therefore need to secure more lodging and set up a greater number of smaller staging areas for the potentially thousands of out-of-state workers other utilities send through the mutual assistance program.
Instead of filling hotel rooms to capacity, the utilities now plan to place no more than two people per hotel room and those two workers will likely remain a team for the duration of the event, utility officials said. Moreover, if a utility must resort to using tents and trailers for lodging, they will need to use more of those facilities to adequately space workers out.
Further complicating matters, the utilities could end up competing with evacuees and disaster aid groups for lodging more than what was the case in the past thanks to COVID-19.
Rather than using a big stadium to house tens of thousands of evacuees as in past major hurricane events, the American Red Cross now plans to prioritize hotels, dormitories and smaller shelters over larger ones due to COVID-19, Trevor Riggen, American Red Cross senior vice president of disaster services, said in an email.
The importance of having back-up plans
Utility officials acknowledge that find housing for repair crews will be harder because of the COVID-19 pandemic so they are doubling up efforts to line up rooms and make sure they have back-up options in place.
"We do know that some of our local jurisdictions may be looking to utilize hotels to replace the standard shelter emergency shelters," said Alan Bradshaw, Dominion Energy Inc.'s director of distribution operations centers and emergency preparedness. "The competition for the rooms could be higher," especially now that states are opening back up and a hurricane could hit during a heavy vacation week, he said.
But competing with evacuees and others for lodging is not new to coastal utilities, said Randy Pryor, CenterPoint Energy Inc.'s vice president of electric distribution operations. In 2008, "we saw it during Hurricane Ike" when more than 2 million customers in the utility's control area were without power and booked up hotels even as the utility had mutual assistance crews in town for repairs. Our game plan is to "continue to utilize hotels when available, but we also have fallback plans to be able to utilize other facilities," Pryor said.
"Every storm is different," Pryor explained. "And while we all have our plans, we have to [be able] to adjust as need be, depending on the size, scale, and the significance of the event."
If the only available hotels are located further away from the damaged areas, utilities such as Dominion may use buses to transport the workers to and from their worksites, although that will require more buses than normal due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
Along those lines, American Electric Power Co. Inc. has opted to put repair truck vehicles back into service that had been slated to be auctioned off so fewer workers will have to travel together in the same vehicle, said Julie Kennedy, AEP’s director of utility emergency preparedness.
RuDon Showers, Duke Energy Corp.'s head of emergency response in the Midwest, Carolinas and Florida, said the company would prefer to use hotel rooms over other lodging options because they are the most affordable and uncomplicated. Adding base camps and other alternative housing means the utility must pay for contractors and additional staff to provide the kinds of amenities a hotel normally offers, such as linen changes, cleaning services, electricity connections, lighting, restrooms and shower facilities. And providing those additional services means total storm restoration costs will be higher, he said.
When it comes to those extra costs, Showers said the key is to keep regulators and other officials informed so "there's no confusion or like sticker shock, we'll say, after a major event." Duke officials are already talking with officials in Florida "to make sure we're not both looking at the same place" for lodging and costs are part of that discussion, he said.
Worker safety and health is paramount
Utilities are taking additional steps beyond securing lodging and transportation to protect their workers. Some utilities also expect to keep the crews of each utility isolated and to assign local crews instead of visiting ones to restore areas that have higher concentrations of coronavirus cases.
The process for feeding crews will also change. Instead of buffet-style meals under one big tent, utilities now plan to distribute boxed meals and have workers sit farther apart when they eat.
When workers do come to help from other service territories, Dominion will no longer have them go into a processing center for a safety orientation, said Bradshaw. Instead, Dominion reduced the risk of exposure to COVID-19 by offering the training in a video format in advance. Those workers are also given a phone number to call if they have additional questions.
"So now, for us, it becomes a little bit more like a drive-through," Bradshaw said. When "you show up, we're ready for you. We validate your roster. We give you a badge," make sure you have the right materials and perform a health assessment that includes screening questions and a temperature check.
"Our goal is to already know where we're going to send you on our service territory and move you out of that processing center, so there's no gathering of crews, and then we get you on your way," Bradshaw said.
Extreme wind storms-related outages in April helped utilities prepare for bigger events
Part of the reason utilities are confident that they are prepared for the hurricane season amid the coronavirus pandemic is that some of them experienced a sort of mini-test run around mid-April when extremely strong winds whipped through states such as Mississippi and Arkansas and caused widespread power outages. By April, COVID-19 was already spreading throughout the U.S., and utilities were taking steps to protect their workers.
In Entergy's control area, for example, strong winds damaged about 1,400 poles and took down more than 2,000 sections of wire, said Riley. Dominion's system was also hit, but Bradshaw said the company did not see an appreciable difference in time needed to restore power to all 200,000 customers compared to similar past events despite the additional COVID-19 related steps the company took. The restoration process took about 36 hours, he said.
Bradshaw contended that although every COVID-19 related new step adds a little time on the front end, the utilities have worked out enough of the process on the tail end that customers should not see a measurable difference in the time needed to restore their power. Once a worker gets to the repair site, the rest of the work is no different than in the past, he said.