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Winter 2017

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A contract tree crew surveys downed trees on power lines in Murrells Inlet after Hurricane Matthew.
A contract tree crew surveys downed trees on power lines in Murrells Inlet after Hurricane Matthew.

Rising To the Challenge of Matthew

“We were all thinking, ‘Please, not another Hugo.’ During the first half of the storm, it was manageable. Crews were able to work and restore a number of outages. Then the winds began howling, the ground was saturated and trees were uprooted. We even had poles snap from possible tornadoes. Large numbers of lines, breakers and circuits went down and the number of customers without power began to steadily climb. We knew we had our work cut out for us.” -- Mike Poston, Vice President of Retail Operations

Hurricane Matthew battered the Caribbean and had its sights set on South Carolina. As the first days of October passed, businesses and residents had no choice but to prepare for hurricane force winds. Santee Cooper employees pulled out our Emergency Action Plan, a road map for preparation and restoration. We took the necessary precautions the week leading up to Hurricane Matthew. Then we braced for the storm to hit.

Clockwise from top left: A sign on a Grand Strand church begs for Matthew’s kindness. Santee Cooper Line Technician B Cole Hickman makes preparations for the hurricane. A man rides a bicycle down the deserted Myrtle Beach Boardwalk before the storm. Distribution Crew Supervisor Luther Burgess (center) discusses storm preparations with team members. Clockwise from top left: A sign on a Grand Strand church begs for Matthew’s kindness. Santee Cooper Line Technician B Cole Hickman makes preparations for the hurricane. A man rides a bicycle down the deserted Myrtle Beach Boardwalk before the storm. Distribution Crew Supervisor Luther Burgess (center) discusses storm preparations with team members. Clockwise from top left: A sign on a Grand Strand church begs for Matthew’s kindness. Santee Cooper Line Technician B Cole Hickman makes preparations for the hurricane. A man rides a bicycle down the deserted Myrtle Beach Boardwalk before the storm. Distribution Crew Supervisor Luther Burgess (center) discusses storm preparations with team members. Clockwise from top left: A sign on a Grand Strand church begs for Matthew’s kindness. Santee Cooper Line Technician B Cole Hickman makes preparations for the hurricane. A man rides a bicycle down the deserted Myrtle Beach Boardwalk before the storm. Distribution Crew Supervisor Luther Burgess (center) discusses storm preparations with team members.
Clockwise from top left: A sign on a Grand Strand church begs for Matthew’s kindness. Santee Cooper Line Technician B Cole Hickman makes preparations for the hurricane. A man rides a bicycle down the deserted Myrtle Beach Boardwalk before the storm. Distribution Crew Supervisor Luther Burgess (center) discusses storm preparations with team members.

Before the Storm

With the threat of a Category 3 hurricane barreling toward South Carolina, officials were preparing for the worst. Gov. Nikki Haley declared a state of emergency on Oct. 4 and called for evacuation along the coast beginning Oct. 5. “Our goal is to make sure that you basically get 100 miles away from the coast,” Gov. Haley said in a press conference.

Days before the storm was predicted to affect the state, grocery stores looked as if they had been looted as shelves were stripped bare of bread, milk, water and batteries. Lines of SUVs, pickup trucks and sedans clogged roads as drivers hoped they would make it to the pump before tanks went dry. Frustration and desperation were palpable as anxious gas station attendants taped handwritten out-of-gas signs to gas pumps.

Bands of clouds brought intermittent wind and rain throughout the Lowcountry and the Grand Strand as the edge of Hurricane Matthew blew into South Carolina on Friday, Oct. 7. All of South Carolina was hoping the path the hurricane would follow was the one most agreed upon by meteorologists, taking a sharp right back out to sea, avoiding the coast. But there’s a reason the area around the predicted path is referred to as the cone of uncertainty. And we were well within that cone.

Businesses boarded up their windows to guard against winds that could whip through the streets and piled sandbags in front of doorways in case of flooding.

Hurricane Matthew caused widespread damage to Santee Cooper’s system. Line crews worked 16-hour shifts to repair equipment and restore electricity to customers.
Hurricane Matthew caused widespread damage to Santee Cooper’s system. Line crews worked 16-hour shifts to repair equipment and restore electricity to customers.

And with approximately 2 million South Carolinians depending on the state-owned electric and water utility as their power source, either directly or through the state’s electric cooperatives, Santee Cooper’s Corporate Incident Management Team and other emergency action teams were in full preparation mode.

Transmission and distribution crews were industriously stocking and fueling line trucks and other fleet vehicles. Utility personnel were closely monitoring storm developments in the tropics and positioning crews for a quick response, to both the statewide transmission system and the local distribution system, based on the projected storm path and probable damage. Additional crews were on standby away from the coast, waiting to be called into action. Press releases and social media posts kept the public informed of what the utility was doing to prepare.

“We were prepared and we were safe,” said Diane Bell, manager of distribution planning and technical operations, and a member of Santee Cooper’s Corporate Incident Management Team. “We had personnel, trucks and equipment on standby. All we could do at that point was wait for the storm.”

Clockwise from top left: A vehicle succumbs to rising waters on U.S. Highway 501. A church steeple rises above a damaged roof while storm clouds fade into the distance. Scenes of damage, like this one on Atlantic Avenue in Garden City Beach, were widespread.  Strong winds forced over utility poles on U.S. Highway 17 in Surfside Beach. Clockwise from top left: A vehicle succumbs to rising waters on U.S. Highway 501. A church steeple rises above a damaged roof while storm clouds fade into the distance. Scenes of damage, like this one on Atlantic Avenue in Garden City Beach, were widespread.  Strong winds forced over utility poles on U.S. Highway 17 in Surfside Beach. Clockwise from top left: A vehicle succumbs to rising waters on U.S. Highway 501. A church steeple rises above a damaged roof while storm clouds fade into the distance. Scenes of damage, like this one on Atlantic Avenue in Garden City Beach, were widespread.  Strong winds forced over utility poles on U.S. Highway 17 in Surfside Beach. Clockwise from top left: A vehicle succumbs to rising waters on U.S. Highway 501. A church steeple rises above a damaged roof while storm clouds fade into the distance. Scenes of damage, like this one on Atlantic Avenue in Garden City Beach, were widespread.  Strong winds forced over utility poles on U.S. Highway 17 in Surfside Beach.
Clockwise from top left: A vehicle succumbs to rising waters on U.S. Highway 501. A church steeple rises above a damaged roof while storm clouds fade into the distance. Scenes of damage, like this one on Atlantic Avenue in Garden City Beach, were widespread. Strong winds forced over utility poles on U.S. Highway 17 in Surfside Beach.

The Fury of the Storm

The anticipation of the storm settled like a blanket over South Carolina as Friday dawned. Those who didn’t evacuate hunkered down, listening to the latest news reports. 

Santee Cooper was a beehive of activity at its Storm Center in Horry County and its Emergency Operations Center in Berkeley County, both of which would become centers of operations for the upcoming week. Like firemen in a firehouse, line crews waited in their crew quarters to be dispatched. Winds were not yet strong enough to keep line crews at bay, and they jumped at the chance to fix scattered outages as they occurred.

As day broke on Saturday, Oct. 8, wind speeds increased. Santee Cooper crews continued working while it was safe to do so. By 9 a.m., higher wind speeds caused Santee Cooper transmission crews in the southern part of the state to cease line work. Distribution crews continued to work in Berkeley, Georgetown and Horry counties until stronger winds progressed to those areas.

Around 11 a.m., Hurricane Matthew made landfall near McClellanville as a Category 1 storm with sustained winds of 75 mph, and by 3 p.m.   more than 30,000 Santee Cooper customers were without power. The hurricane continued to push onward, and the landscape began to change dramatically as already saturated ground gave way and trees tumbled.

Left: Santee Cooper customer Dayle Grimsley of Murrells Inlet hugs Santee Cooper Safety Specialist III Rose Foster after she helped start Grimsley’s generator. Right: Line Technician A Jason Hucks and Line Technician B Cole Hickman free part of a broken pole from a utility line beside the Oil Plant substation in Myrtle Beach. Left: Santee Cooper customer Dayle Grimsley of Murrells Inlet hugs Santee Cooper Safety Specialist III Rose Foster after she helped start Grimsley’s generator. Right: Line Technician A Jason Hucks and Line Technician B Cole Hickman free part of a broken pole from a utility line beside the Oil Plant substation in Myrtle Beach.
Left: Santee Cooper customer Dayle Grimsley of Murrells Inlet hugs Santee Cooper Safety Specialist III Rose Foster after she helped start Grimsley’s generator. Right: Line Technician A Jason Hucks and Line Technician B Cole Hickman free part of a broken pole from a utility line beside the Oil Plant substation in Myrtle Beach.

“We were cautiously optimistic at the beginning of the hurricane. At that point, it wasn’t much more than what we would experience during a large summer storm,” said Poston. “When the second half of the storm came ashore, it felt like a hurricane. Our own building shook and our system showed outages across the board as trees took out line after line. To ensure our line workers’ safety, we had to stand down and wait for the worst to be over.”

Although Santee Cooper expected there to be damage, reality was much worse than anyone anticipated. 

By 6:30 p.m., more than 33 percent of Santee Cooper’s transmission system had been impacted. Transmission lines feed electricity from generating stations to the state’s electric cooperatives and the distribution system that keeps the lights on for our direct-serve customers. At the same time, more than 137,000 Santee Cooper residential and commercial customers were without power. The storm delivered the biggest hit to Santee Cooper’s system since Hurricane Hugo 27 years earlier.

 

Santee Cooper Line Technician C William Brown and Crew Supervisor Larry Hall move a fallen utility pole on the south end of the Grand Strand.
Santee Cooper Line Technician C William Brown and Crew Supervisor Larry Hall move a fallen utility pole on the south end of the Grand Strand.

It Takes Teamwork To Rebuild

Hurricane Matthew left uprooted trees, broken poles, downed lines, flooding and sand-filled roads in its wake. More than 63,000 calls were received by Santee Cooper’s trouble communication lines. The transmission system had 60 major structures that needed to be replaced, and there were more than 400 points where trees had taken down lines. The distribution system had 315 poles that needed to be replaced, as well as a significant number of crossarms, arrestors, insulators, fuses, transformers and other equipment that needed to be repaired.

“It’s hard to describe the determination, resolve and grit that were demonstrated after the storm,” said Vicky Budreau, then manager of transmission operations. “More than 1,000 people were involved in the 8-day restoration. The teamwork was incredible. Everyone was working together, around the clock, to restore power.”

Bell and Poston also emphasized the power of teamwork. “We weren’t going to stop until every customer who could receive power was energized,” said Bell. “We had Santee Cooper crews in place and called in a large number of additional line and tree crews to assist us and to help speed up restoration. We had an incredible response from our sister APPA (American Public Power Association) mutual aid companies. The restoration would have taken a lot longer if they hadn’t helped us out.”

Poston added, “It was an all-hands-on-deck mentality, with many people pitching in and volunteering for tasks far different than their ‘day jobs.’ We had employees with their homes flooded who still came to work to serve our customers, and the teamwork by all units across Santee Cooper was impressive.”

Clockwise from left: A worker from a tree cutting crew saws through fallen trees on power lines on Sandy Island.  Brown, Hall and Line Technician A Bryant Geathers travel by boat to assess damage on Sandy Island.  Crews encountered many challenges, including having to repair and replace a large number of damaged transformers.
Clockwise from left: A worker from a tree cutting crew saws through fallen trees on power lines on Sandy Island.  Brown, Hall and Line Technician A Bryant Geathers travel by boat to assess damage on Sandy Island.  Crews encountered many challenges, including having to repair and replace a large number of damaged transformers.
Clockwise from left: A worker from a tree cutting crew saws through fallen trees on power lines on Sandy Island.  Brown, Hall and Line Technician A Bryant Geathers travel by boat to assess damage on Sandy Island.  Crews encountered many challenges, including having to repair and replace a large number of damaged transformers.
Clockwise from left: A worker from a tree cutting crew saws through fallen trees on power lines on Sandy Island. Brown, Hall and Line Technician A Bryant Geathers travel by boat to assess damage on Sandy Island. Crews encountered many challenges, including having to repair and replace a large number of damaged transformers.

On the morning after the storm, helicopter crews began flying transmission lines to spot damage so Santee Cooper could form a battle plan to restore power to the electric cooperatives’ delivery points and to substations that serve distribution customers. Distribution crews were riding circuits and working with Storm Center personnel to record damage and prioritize restoration. Reviewing and recording damage is frenzied but vital work, and line crews continued to make repairs as others assessed damage.

Poston said personnel were all focused on the single goal of restoring power. “Everyone had a job to do. Assessment teams were on the ground, crews were repairing lines and customer service representatives were helping customers. We realized it was going to take time and patience to repair lines and equipment, and to restore power safely. It was frustrating at times and we wished we could move faster, but morale was good and each victory, no matter how small, increased our determination.”

Operation centers were staffed 24 hours a day and crews worked 16-hour, staggered shifts. It was a flurry of activity that lasted for over a week. Not being able to access areas was the biggest obstacle to repairing equipment and restoring power. Downed trees, high water and sand slowed down progress.

Jason Taylor, Santee Cooper distribution controller III, helps control the flow of electricity in the Distribution Control Center in Myrtle Beach.
Jason Taylor, Santee Cooper distribution controller III, helps control the flow of electricity in the Distribution Control Center in Myrtle Beach.

“The conditions that the field personnel worked in were quite challenging. There were large numbers of trees blocking roads and rights-of-way where we needed to get crews and equipment. And there were many flooded areas throughout the state we couldn’t access,” said Budreau.

Hilton Head Island suffered a lot of damage and had particularly difficult areas for transmission crews to reach. And in Pawleys Island, distribution crews couldn’t get to a majority of trouble spots until days after the storm because the National Guard had to clear the roads to make them passable.

Each day, progress was visible. Transformers, poles and lines were repaired and replaced, and the number of outages steadily decreased as the week progressed.

Line Technician A Jason Hucks and Line Technician B Cole Hickman must free a utility pole that was snapped in half at Oil Plant Substation in Myrtle Beach during Hurricane Matthew.
Line Technician A Jason Hucks and Line Technician B Cole Hickman must free a utility pole that was snapped in half at Oil Plant Substation in Myrtle Beach during Hurricane Matthew.

“This was the first real ‘test’ we’ve had since Hurricane Floyd with restoration efforts lasting for more than a week,” said Bell. “Employees who have worked here less than 10 to 15 years got experience that some of us got with Hugo. They got to see all the moving parts come together and although team members did an outstanding job, they will be better prepared for the next one.”

As crews energized substations and lines, the operation centers erupted in cheers. As the hours and days wore on and team members became weary and fatigued, high fives and pats on the back were important to morale. But the frequent kind words and encouragement from our customers provided the best reinforcement.

Santee Cooper Technical Associate Andy Woolcock, Engineer I Geno Porter and Line Technician A Marshall Hill work on repairing structures on a 230 kV line from Winyah to Charity substation. Hurricane Matthew caused damage at other facilities, including Cross Generating Station in Cross.
Santee Cooper Technical Associate Andy Woolcock, Engineer I Geno Porter and Line Technician A Marshall Hill work on repairing structures on a 230 kV line from Winyah to Charity substation. Hurricane Matthew caused damage at other facilities, including Cross Generating Station in Cross.

“It was amazing to see customers bringing food and drinks to line crews and thanking them for being away from their families as they helped bring back power,” said Poston. “One customer even fired up a grill on his front lawn and took lunch orders for crews working in his neighborhood. And children drew thank you cards and handed them to workers. Plus, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of  ‘thank yous’ on our social media pages.

“The patience and gratitude from our customers was overwhelming and heartwarming. They are the reason we do what we do.”

A mutual aid crew from Pike out of Goldsboro, N.C., along with Santee Cooper Meter Technician A Tim Suggs (far right), meet in Conway with children who drew pictures and wrote letters to line technicians, thanking them for their hard work.
A mutual aid crew from Pike out of Goldsboro, N.C., along with Santee Cooper Meter Technician A Tim Suggs (far right), meet in Conway with children who drew pictures and wrote letters to line technicians, thanking them for their hard work.