Loving Louisiana

Multiple WEC crews help region recover from Ida

From left, journeyman linemen Marritt Dorriety, Tyler Driskell, Bobby Groves and Caleb Flippo joined serviceman Mitchie Bass (right) and working foreman Dexter Tolbert (not pictured) on a trip to Louisiana to restore power following Hurricane Ida in August.

The Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) linemen slowly and methodically backed a pole trailer up to a drop-off location, like they had so many times before. Except this time, the poles were dropped directly into a canal near the Pearl River.

“There were no roads to eight fish camps on one side of a river, so we had to offload some new poles on the other side of the canal,” WEC serviceman Mitchie Bass says. “The members there had to drag the poles across the channel. They had two broken poles over there, and some guys from Virginia hooked their power up. That was the first time I ever dealt with that.”

Bass was one of five WEC linemen who helped Washington-St. Tammany Electric Cooperative in Louisiana recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Ida, which hit southeastern Louisiana in late August. Another six-man linemen crew aided DEMCO near Baton Rouge in its restoration efforts, while WEC’s Charlie Daughtry served in DEMCO’s warehouse for several days.

A pair of WEC linemen climb a pole to restore power in Louisiana following Hurricane Ida.

All told, WEC personnel collectively spent 101 days assisting those in the Pelican State.

“As a cooperative, we understand the power of coming together to improve life for those around us,” says WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “As a cooperative situated near the Gulf Coast, we also know how much work it takes to restore power following a major hurricane. We welcome the chance to assist our fellow man when disaster strikes. It’s the cooperative way, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Though the task carries some professional, physical and emotional challenges for linemen, the job is also very rewarding.

A Major Rebuild

WEC crews unload poles at a boat ramp to help a Louisiana fish camp receive power.

Arriving in Louisiana less than a week after the storm unleashed its fury, the linemen discovered the structural damage to homes and businesses was less severe than they expected.

“We saw some damage to homes. Where we were working, it was not too bad,” Bass says. “Compared to other hurricanes — certainly Hurricane Michael — it was not as bad as it could have been.”

The power grid, however, fared far worse. More than 98% of the roughly 52,000 meters Washington-St. Tammany services lost power during Hurricane Ida. More than two weeks after Ida passed, DEMCO still had about 9,000 outages.

“They had trees fallen on lines, and they had a lot of broken poles,” Bass says. Not only did WEC’s manpower help restore power to many Washington-St. Tammany members, WEC’s specialized equipment did, too.

“Throughout history, our members have blessed us with tremendous resources and leadership,” Kimbro says. “This allows us to help others in several ways while maintaining great service locally. WEC is truly Big Enough to Serve, Local Enough to Care.”

After Bass’ crew returned home following its 10-day stint in Louisiana, WEC sent a six-man construction crew for a week to help DEMCO, a 152,000- meter utility, restore power in its footprint.

Braving the Elements

WEC Operations Manager Joey Brown (second from left) debriefs a crew of linemen before they depart to help Louisiana residents recover from Hurricane Ida.

Working outside in the South presents its own specific challenges, many of which Louisiana is known for, including heat, water and dangerous wildlife.

“It was really wet out, but fortunately, we only saw one alligator — and that was away from a work site,” Bass says. “The problem mostly was the mosquitoes.” Bass says lineworkers had to be mindful of snakes while working an already dangerous job. The crews also worked 16-hour days, meaning fatigue further complicated efforts. Communication and consistent safety training across all cooperatives guided the lineworkers past these obstacles.

“You can still focus on safety because most of the training practices are the same,” Bass says. “We made sure we were grounded at all times.”

Lineworkers also encountered some emotional challenges, mainly being separated from family for more than a week.

“You work hard to provide for your family, but if you have kids at home, it gets hard — especially the fourth or fifth day,” Bass says. “That’s the reason we work safely, so we can return home.”

Showing Appreciation

Southeastern Louisiana residents ensured their area felt like a home away from home with the hospitality they displayed throughout the WEC linemen’s time there.

WEC linemen ensure poles are carried by boat to a fish camp serviced by no roads.

“You would have people stopping, offering water and sports drinks,” Bass says. “People would drive by blowing their horns and waving. It was all greatly appreciated.”

The brother of Bobby Groves, a WEC journeyman lineman, provided a couple of meals — including crawfish etouffee. Another woman cooked dinner for the linemen on two consecutive nights to thank them for restoring her power.

“She stopped by us at a work site and said her power still wasn’t on. She lived in a very isolated area near the end of the grid,” Bass says. “Crew foreman Dexter Tolbert got free, investigated her situation, and fixed her up. She cooked two suppers for us.”

While Bass is grateful for the many friendly gestures, he above all thanks WEC for the opportunity to lend a helping hand.

“You never know when you might be the one that needs some help,” he says.