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Co-ops Send Help After Hurricane Laura Lashes East Texas

October 2, 2020

Aug. 28 was his pregnant wife's birthday, but Casey Walls, an apprentice lineman with Wood County EC, wasn't celebrating. He was packing his bags, preparing for long days of hard work in the Pineywoods of East Texas, where tens of thousands of electric cooperative members didn't have power.

"Pretty much every span of wire was on the ground," said Walls, whose seven-man WCEC crew left Quitman on Aug. 28 to work in the extreme heat and humidity restoring power for Jasper-Newton EC members. "We worked from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., 15 hours a day."

Walls was one of about 175 lineworkers from some two dozen Texas co-ops—from as far as the Panhandle—who rushed to help rebuild infrastructure after Hurricane Laura battered Louisiana and East Texas. The Category 4 storm killed at least 25 people after it made landfall early Aug. 27 near Cameron, Louisiana, its 150 mph winds knocking out power to more than 62,000 co-op meters in Texas.

"The damage from Laura exceeded the damage seen in [Hurricane] Ike but was not quite as bad as the damage sustained in Rita," said Mark Tamplin, general manager at JNEC, which lost power to more than 90% of its 22,900 meters spread across remote, densely forested and muddy country, prompting help from crews representing 20 co-ops. "Assistance from other cooperatives was extremely critical to the restoration effort."

Those crews brought with them skills, heavy equipment and an undeniable commitment to the co-op family. They slept in churches, makeshift camps and anywhere they could—some staying a week or more—and ate food provided by the co-ops they helped and, sometimes, appreciative members.

"Once his lights came on, one JNEC member was so appreciative that he cooked and brought us all hamburgers," said Walls, whose WCEC crew worked with lineworkers from Bowie-Cass EC, changing out poles, installing crossarms and helping out other workers as needed.

"Downed trees were by far the most significant factor with Hurricane Laura," said Bryan Wood, general manager at Deep East Texas EC, which dealt with outages to 25,474 meters. "Rainfall totals were nowhere near what was predicted, which was a fortunate occurrence given all the issues with downed trees and power lines."

Wood said the assistance of fellow co-ops—and their devotion to the co-op principles of Cooperation Among Cooperatives and Concern for Community—was vital.

"Contractors respond for the payday; cooperatives respond to restore power to members," he said. "Most cooperative employees are cooperative members and realize the importance of coming to the aid of family. Disasters like this make you realize just how important principles 6 and 7 are to the cooperative model."

Kathy Wood, general manager at Panola-Harrison EC, which had 9,450 Laura-related outages, echoed those sentiments.

"The help from our sister cooperatives in Texas was very critical," she said. "Cooperative personnel from Bowie-Cass, Upshur Rural and Rusk County [ECs] mobilized quickly and sent crews with equipment ready to assist us in our restoration efforts. Because of the help we received, our restoration time was significantly shortened, and our members were able to enjoy the 'cooler' temperatures that electric air conditioning provides. In the extreme heat we were experiencing at the time, members were very grateful."