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Directors Learn From Hurricane Harvey

January 31, 2018

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas just over five months ago, whipping the coast with wind gusts as high as 130 mph and flooding large tracts, including some in Co-op Country. While electric cooperatives in Texas are no strangers to severe storms, Harvey served as a reminder of the damage Mother Nature can wreak, the preparation required to prevent catastrophe and, most importantly, the resilience of the cooperative spirit.

These themes were a significant focus of the 18th annual TEC Directors Conference in January, when more than 200 co-op directors and guests gathered in Fort Worth for educational sessions and industry updates.

"The magnitude of this storm was unparalleled," said Martin Bevins, TEC vice president of Communications & Member Services, in his opening remarks to a panel discussion on the co-op response to Hurricane Harvey.

Fifteen co-ops in Texas were hit with some form of devastation by Harvey, he said, and nearly 200,000 co-op meters lost power due to the storm. But in less than a week, the majority of those meters had power again—thanks in no small part to more than 30 other Texas co-ops who offered or assisted in mutual aid.

"You all did an amazing job getting the lights back on and working together," Bevins told the attendees. "It is a true example of Cooperation Among Cooperatives when you have 80 percent of an association coming together to try to provide aid for those folks that need it."

The panel included Nina Campos of Victoria EC, Joey Davis of Jasper-Newton EC and Laval Simons of Jackson EC, who described their experiences with the historic storm.

Victoria EC was among the cooperatives most severely affected. Not long after making landfall, Harvey took offline all 22,467 of VEC's meters, and members soon inundated the co-op with phone calls.

"The biggest question that you always get is, 'How long is it going to take for my power to get back on?' " said Campos, VEC's manager of human resources and communications. "While I would love to be able to answer that, it's just impossible." However, she noted, it is possible to keep members informed of the obstacles the co-op faces and the progress being made in restoring power. She said sharing messages and photos through social media "helped us tremendously in keeping the members up to date in exactly what was going on."

With the support of contractors and fellow cooperatives, VEC was able to restore power to 95 percent of its system within just 10 days—a remarkable feat considering the flooding, rising temperatures and swarms of mosquitoes that crews had to endure.

"It's the best and worst team-building activity I could have put together for our team," Campos said. "Moving forward, I'll be more creative—we don't need a Category 4 hurricane to bond. But it really brought the team together."

Jasper-Newton EC was spared the intense winds, but over the course of a week, Harvey dropped upwards of 35 inches of rain in some parts of the cooperative's territory, said Davis, director of member relations at JNEC. Worse, about a week after the rains began, and with restoration progressing, a transmission outage knocked out about 98 percent of the co-op's meters.

But if past hurricanes taught JNEC anything, it was to prepare well in advance of a storm's arrival.

"Around May or June every year, it's just what we do," Davis said, referring to the close coordination and planning JNEC conducts with the National Weather Service, emergency responders, contractors and other cooperatives.

"With that cooperative effort of working together—with Deep East Texas [EC], Sam Houston Electric and other agencies—we were able to bring normalcy and power back to our service area," he said. "An event like this is just horrific. You wish it never would have happened. But I've also found that the kindness of humanity is shown like nothing else, especially from Texans."

Strategic planning was also at the heart of Jackson EC's storm recovery, according to Simons, a director at JEC.

"We were ready for the storm better than we thought we were," he said. "We had already stockpiled supplies. We had already revamped our system. We spent the last two years on a very aggressive tree-trimming program, cutting back brush out of power lines and rights-of-way. It angered a lot of consumers for a while, but they were really glad during the storm because we got their power on real quick."

Simons commended the personnel who braved the floodwaters to restore electricity to co-op members. "The dedication of the crews really shines through during a storm," he told the audience. "These guys were there before the storm, during the storm and after. They didn't want to go home until everybody got their power back on. And that's just a testament to the co-op way, the way we do business."

Dan Kennedy, disaster recovery specialist at Witt O'Brien's, a disaster response company, spoke about disaster preparedness at the event. He outlined nine critical steps to equip co-ops for natural disaster, including identifying potential hazards, reviewing insurance policies, establishing disaster teams and forming mutual aid agreements.

The conference also included an industry update from TEC President and CEO Mike Williams and a legislative update from Eric Craven, TEC vice president of government relations and legal affairs.

Phillip Ragain of The RAD Group talked to attendees about overcoming the forces keeping us silent in the face of disaster, and NRECA's Brian Sloboda examined the future of electric vehicles in Co-op Country.

Award-winning storyteller, comedian and motivational speaker Kelly Swanson closed out the conference with an engaging series of interwoven narratives to showcase the persuasive power of stories that spark emotion.

"When you can understand the story of the people you serve," Swanson said, "and when you share a piece of your story and when you share the story that unites both of you, then you have an ultimate connection."