Having served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, stationed on the East Coast all that time, my wife, Tracy, and I are very familiar with hurricanes and the damage they can do. Like our neighbors, we maintained a “hurricane closet” because there are no basements in Virginia Beach. That closet was always kept stocked with supplies such as bottled water, batteries, food and a weather radio.
In 2003, Hurricane Isabel came to town. I remember watching the siding on my neighbor’s house get peeled off piece by piece by the high winds and then disappear in the storm. Our power was out for over a week. I clearly recall lying in bed at night, sweating and listening to the sound of portable generators running in the neighborhood, wishing that I had been smart enough to buy one before the storm. It was hot, muggy and miserable, with a refrigerator and deep freeze full of ruined food, no hot water and no lights at night except for flashlights and candles. Living without electricity at any time can be miserable, and living without electricity in the aftermath of a major storm is doubly so. We all take the reliability of our electricity for granted. It takes 10,000 things to go right with power plants, transmission lines and distribution systems to keep the lights on. It only takes one thing to go wrong to turn them off.
Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 31 as a powerful Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 150 mph. Ida destroyed over 30,000 utility poles, 35,000 spans of wire and 6,000 transformers, plunging more than 1 million people into the dark. Ida did more damage to the power grid than Hurricanes Katrina, Delta and Zeta combined, and full power restoration was expected to take six weeks. Like I said before, living without electricity for a day is no fun, for a week is miserable, and more than a month is an entirely new level of pain and suffering. Just like the theme song to the 1960s TV show Gilligan’s Island, “No phone, no lights, no motor cars, not a single luxury. Like Robinson Crusoe, it’s as primitive as can be.”
Cooperation among cooperatives
There is a point in all stories where the tide turns, where good triumphs over evil and where the good guys win in the end (or at least that is how it is in the stories I like). There is a saying that “a friend in need is a friend indeed,” and two of our core Cooperative Principles are “Cooperation among Cooperatives” and “Concern for Community.” I can’t think of anything that demonstrates us living squarely in line with our principles more than “Operation Ida,” where the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas rallied to support our brothers and sisters in Louisiana by providing mutual aid to get the lights back on as safely and quickly as possible.
When I say support, I mean we sent in the cavalry — 209 men and 208 pieces of equipment. Crews from Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative of Ozark; Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc., (AECI) of Little Rock; C & L Electric Cooperative of Star City; Carroll Electric Cooperative of Berryville; Clay County Electric Cooperative of Corning; Craighead Electric Cooperative of Jonesboro; First Electric Cooperative of Jacksonville; North Arkansas Electric Cooperative of Salem; Ozarks Electric Cooperative of Fayetteville; Petit Jean Electric Cooperative of Clinton; South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative of Arkadelphia; Southwest Arkansas Electric Cooperative of Texarkana; and Woodruff Electric Cooperative of Forrest City are providing construction, repair and right-of-way assistance.
The First Electric crews are assisting Washington-St. Tammany Electric Cooperative of Mandeville, Louisiana, while the rest of the Arkansas cooperative crews are assisting South Louisiana Electric Cooperative of Houma, Louisiana. South Louisiana Electric Cooperative reported that 94% of its 19,000 members were without power on Aug. 31. As I am writing this column on Sept. 10, they still have half of their members without power.
In addition to the crews and equipment, the Electric Research and Manufacturing Cooperative, Inc. (ERMCO), a subsidiary of AECI, shipped about 7,000 transformers to impacted areas, while the AECI Utility Sales Department provided truckloads of materials for impacted cooperatives in Louisiana. Despite constrained supply chains related to the COVID-19 pandemic, ERMCO and AECI were prepared and able to send this kind of support, clearly demonstrating the cooperative difference.
While many of us went camping with our families on Labor Day weekend, our people who are providing mutual aid on the ground in Louisiana were, and still are, camping in a tent city and working 16-hour days in extremely hot and humid conditions. In addition to the normal hazards associated with storm recovery, they also must contend with a new hazard — alligators, as much of the terrain is swampy.
If you need any additional confirmation as to the quality of our cooperative employees, here are a couple of quotes from the field: William Thompson, electric cooperative safety specialist for AECC/AECI: “I get a great sense of pride for the work that our crews are doing. The conditions are not the best, but, as always, we are trained to overcome obstacles and get power back on for these kind people.”
Mike Vint, AECI general foreman: “We are always willing and want to help our neighbors during their times of need because we know that they will do the same for us.”
Our crews are great ambassadors of the state of Arkansas, and they have made many friends with the electric co-op member-owners in Louisiana. If you have ever been without power for over a week, then you know there is not a more welcome sight than crews arriving to clear the downed trees and a fleet of bucket trucks with linemen to get the lights back on. I am extremely proud of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas and our amazing employees. I continue to pray for their safety as they work hard to get the lights back on in Louisiana, and for their safe return to their friends and families in Arkansas.
Vernon “Buddy” Hasten is President and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc., and Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation.