Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
Grayson RECC President and CEO Bradley Cherry hadn’t been in the position long when the ice storms hit in February. He was still technically the “interim President and CEO” on the night of February 10 when the first customers started reporting power outages.
“With the first ice storm, through those next five days, we got up to just around 7,500 members who were out of power,” Cherry explained. “By the 15th we had that restored to just around 2,000 members that had been out. That’s when the second ice storm hit.”
That one took out even more lines in the six county area Grayson RECC serves – which includes almost the entirety of Elliott County and portions of Carter, Greenup, Lawrence, Rowan, and Lewis Counties.
“During those five days there wasn’t much thawing,” Cherry continued. “Everything was still on the roads, on the lines, on the trees, and then that second storm hit, and that’s when catastrophe struck. The city of Grayson lost power, which is served by Kentucky Power but comes out of one of our substations. But we got up to around 11,500 of our 15,300 members who were without power.”
A lot of that was due to tree falls and snapped limbs taking out power lines, as ice weighed down branches across the storm area. But some of it was due to the sheer weight of ice on lines and electric poles as well.
“It was a combination of trees falling – off roadway trees that would fall – and also just the weight of the ice and the snow as it continually accumulated on those lines,” Cherry noted. “Not only our lines, but also the attachments there. That weight, at times, became too unbearable for the poles, causing them to snap.”
Sometimes the repairs themselves would lead to issues.
“There were also occasions where we would remove trees, and that would cause lines to bounce and that would cause a pole to snap as well,” Cherry said.
There were also instances where repairs made after the first storm broke again during the second storm. On Route 7, for instance, Cherry said that five poles replaced after the first storm all had to be replaced again when they snapped during the second storm.
Cherry said the service has replaced 341 poles so far, with 119 replaced in Carter and 126 in Elliott County. The total cost for repairs from the storm are $5.5 million to date, but Cherry said the cooperative expects those costs to continue rising to around $7 million before all is said and done.
It’s been a daunting task, and he said he understood why some members were frustrated.
“I think a lot of that (the repeated breaks and repairs in one spot leading to breaks in others) led to our member frustrations with the extended outages,” Cherry said. “They couldn’t understand why they may look out and see one line down in their yard and think, ‘Oh, that’s all that has to be put up.’ Yes, but no.”
It’s much more complex than that in a networked system, and in addition to damages further down the line that might need addressing before power can be restored to the end points – like a broken line in the front yard – there are safeguards to consider as well.
“Everything in between has to be in working order for the power to get there,” Cherry said. “You have to start with the source, there, from the substations and work your way out, from our three phase lines that carry that power out to our communities, and from there all the single phases and run all the taps off of that. So, it’s really kind of a step-by-step process of getting that power to those end users.”
While Cherry said some criticism was warranted, this was an unprecedented storm, and all regional power districts were impacted, not just Grayson Rural Electric.
“If it was just a local area that was impacted, you may be able to say, ‘Yeah, that area right there. Maybe they could have done a better job (of maintenance).’ But the damage was so widespread, and it wasn’t just us,” Cherry noted. “It was Big Sandy, it was Kentucky Power, it was AEP, and that just shows the widespread damage that the ice can cause. We cut 40 foot right-of-ways right now. Even if we could afford to cut 80 foot right-of-ways, we still would have had some of the same issues.”
He reiterated just how demanding it was trying to effect repairs while snow and ice continued to pile on and thanked local and state road crews for their assistance in making roadways passable so their crews could get out to make the necessary repairs. In some cases that was a necessary step just so crews could reach right-of-ways where they might then have to clear their own paths on to where repairs were needed. Some of the places they were ready to get to once the ice storms were over then became an issue to get to when flooding followed the snow and ice.
Despite all that, they were able to get all power restored by March 2.
Work is still ongoing, though. Right now, Cherry said, crews are doing cleanup along with their other typical maintenance. Crews are also upgrading temporary repairs made to get power back on quickly.
“At times our contractors and our workers, if there was a temporary fix that they could make that would restore power quicker, that was safe as well, they would do that,” he explained. “Now they’ll go back and check some of these lines and check some of these poles, that they may have temporarily fixed. They may have to change a pole or rephase some lines that they recently put up. Just clean up. Or fix trouble spots they found that they didn’t want to fix then, and take people back off (power), but now they’ll get to.”
Cherry had nothing but thanks for the workers doing those repairs – especially those from sister co-ops out of Georgia who answered their calls for assistance. He also thanked the co-op partners for their patience and support and the office staff who took outage reports and coordinated repairs with repairmen in the field.
“We have 39 employees here, and all 39 played a huge role,” he said. From dispatching repairs to customer relations and answering questions, right down to the purchasing department making sure they had the supplies necessary to make their repairs, none of it could have occurred without coordination and communication between the staff.
“Not just what our men needed, but our contractors,” he added. “We had over 300 contractors in here helping us return power.”
It was quite the trial by fire – or ice if you will – for the new CEO. Days started as early as 4 a.m. for those doing repairs and went as late as 11 each evening for those coordinating them. But he came through it with an appreciation for his staff and the members they serve.
“I just appreciate everybody’s patience with us,” Cherry said. “I know it was frustrating for them to be out such an extended period of time. Some of our members up to 20, 23 days. I know it was frustrating. It was frustrating for us. Everyone here takes pride in what they do, especially our (line workers) in their territories. They were frustrated that they couldn’t get their members back on more quickly. But it wasn’t for a lack of urgency or care. They wanted to do as much as they could, as quickly as they could, and as safely as they could.”
But that safety was a paramount concern, and they weren’t willing to cut any corners when it came to safety.
“One mistake could lead to an even bigger disaster, for our members and our families here. So, we do appreciate their patience, and we were just glad to get everyone’s power back on. And, hopefully, this really is just a once in a decade event.”
And if they do get hit again?
“We’ve sat down and digested what went on,” Cherry said. “Asked ourselves what we could do better. Especially communication wise, utilizing social media maybe a little bit more effectively, a little more quickly, is one thing we’ve looked at. But each storm and each situation is unique, and we try to take things away from them each time that we can utilize in the future.”
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