Let there be lights

Hurricane Rita

Rita struck in the dead of night Sept. 24, 2005, shrouded in darkness that would perpetuate in Southeast Texas for what felt like an eternity when hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses went lights-out. In actuality, electricity was restored to most within three weeks – but it was a long three weeks, not only for those trying to clean up the wreckage left by Rita without the comforts of modern civilization, but also for the thousands of workers trying to give hurricane victims a ray of light.

“The morning of Sept. 23, going to the office, there was already an evacuation called,” recalls Joe Domino, former Entergy Texas CEO and president, as well as Chief Integration Officer for Entergy Corp. “There was no one going down the road. But there was also no birds, no squirrels – it was totally quiet. It was eerie.

“You knew something different was happening.”

Domino said as he and his staff prepared for the worst, they called in crews from anywhere and everywhere.

“(Hurricane) Katrina had already hit New Orleans, and we had sent a lot of our crews over to help them,” Domino said. “We knew there was a hurricane coming, and we were potentially in the path of the storm, so we got our crews back. We also got as much help as we could from other utilities, contractors, mutual assistance agreements …”

Domino said that as Hurricane Rita was making her way to Southeast Texas, so were the crews that would be in place to rebuild after the storm had done her worst. All told, 13,000 restoration workers and 4,500 support staffers lent a hand or two to the effort that encompassed Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi with 800,000 customers without power.

When Rita struck land just east of the Texas border in neighboring Cameron Parish, Louisiana, at 2:30 the morning of Sept. 24, she hit with winds that would top 96 mph in Beaumont, according to the National Weather Service, caused storm surges that annihilated entire communities, and left hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents and businesses without power.

Within hours of Rita’s landfall, Domino and crew were making their way through the devastation. According to Entergy records, 286,600 homes and businesses lost power in the affected Texas area alone, representing well more than half of the company’s total 420,000-customer population for the same area.

“When the wind died down, we went out to assess the damage,” Domino said. “Then, we devised a plan. Where can we get service restored in the shortest amount of time based on the amount of damage that occurred to the system?

 “Probably everything east of the Trinity River” was without power, Domino said. “We started from the west side of our system – a power plant in Conroe – and from the north.”

Additionally, according to Entergy records, “All transmission connections from Louisiana to Texas were severed: 341 transmission lines out of service, 443 substations out of service, 11,500 distribution poles destroyed.”

“The challenge,” Domino said, “was interesting.”

Not only was the crew responsible for restoring power to entire regions that had lost complete connection to the grid and usable equipment, but they were also having to do so without life’s creature comforts.

“You have about 3,000 people here and you have to find a place for them to sleep, food for them to eat, a way to wash their clothes,” Domino said. “We had to have caterers, medics, mini-headquarters set up all over. … Imagine every service that occurs in regular time – you have to replicate that here.”

This wasn’t the crew’s first rodeo, though, and that’s what meant the difference between success and disaster, according to the seasoned Entergy head.

“Planning and preparation is the key to success,” Domino said. “Rita wasn’t our first – we had storms prior to that – but none as big as Rita until then.” Fresh off the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Entergy staffers were well versed in what they were in for. “We train every year before hurricane season. We learn things during every storm, and we integrate that into our plans moving forward.”

For their efforts, customers were rewarded. By Sept. 26, about 24,800 customers had service restored; and by Oct. 13, about 279,400 customer service connections were restored, representing 97 percent of the total outage.

“As you can imagine,” Domino surmised, “what was left were customers who could not get reconnected.”

Domino praised staff who put in the work to make such a miracle happen in such a short time span.

“I can’t say enough about the folks we had doing the logistics, the restoration itself, manning the community centers and command posts – everyone did a great job. It wasn’t just the work of one person. These employees all worked together and did a fantastic job getting service restored for almost 100 percent of the customers in 21 days – and that’s pretty amazing.”

Edison Electric Institute also thought the feat was pretty impressive, awarding Entergy the National Storm Restoration Award for its efforts. Continuing the tradition, Entergy also won the award this year, “to recognize the company’s exceptional power restoration efforts during five different storms over the course of the past year.” This is the 17th consecutive year EEI has awarded Entergy with a national storm restoration award. Including this year’s honor, Entergy has received 22 awards from EEI for its restoration and mutual-assistance work.

“Entergy’s exemplary efforts to restore service demonstrate the industry’s commitment to serving its customers,” said EEI President Tom Kuhn. “We commend the crews who braved dangerous conditions caused by the extreme weather, as they diligently worked to safely and quickly restore service.”

The challenges, personally, Domino said of storm restoration, is wanting to do the best you can in the quickest amount of time possible. A resident of Southeast Texas, Domino’s personal connection to the success of the Rita mission were all the more real.

“When it’s all over, and you know the team has done a good job, you really get a sense of satisfaction,” he said. “No one was injured and all our customers had their service restored.

“We call that a success.”


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