Serving Big

Wiregrass Electric personnel respond to hurricane-impacted areas near and far

This Louisiana home suffered major damage from Hurricane Laura.

Throughout a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season in 2020, Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) personnel proudly served near and far.

Beginning in late August, WEC line crews spent two weeks helping restore power to Louisianans after Hurricane Laura. The last crew left that assignment to help prepare for the local Hurricane Sally response.

Including service by warehouse personnel in a storm-stricken location, WEC professionals spent about a month working in areas hit by hurricanes.

“We’re big enough to serve and small enough to care,” says WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “Our members can take a lot of pride in our efforts to respond.”

Organizing Regional Response

Many electric cooperatives originated thanks to Rural Electrification Act loans following the Great Depression. Those low-interest loans helped local stakeholders construct power grids where larger companies wouldn’t.

The storm was strong enough to derail these train cars.

As part of the loan process, the federal government required certain construction standards, leading cooperatives across the nation to erect similar power grids. Mutual-aid agreements that pledged assistance to each other in times of need became a natural byproduct for cooperatives, Kimbro says.

Years ago, cooperatives struck their own individual agreements. But over time it became more efficient for state cooperative associations to coordinate large-scale and regional responses.

“The electric cooperative association for Alabama can talk to the electric cooperative association for Louisiana, and they can assess the needs of multiple cooperatives at once and determine what resources are available,” Kimbro says. Involving the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives makes the process much more efficient and effective in any response.

While requests for extra linemen are virtually universal following a hurricane landfall, other cooperative employees also may be called to action. For instance, WEC’s Charlie Daugherty served in Baldwin Electric Membership Cooperative’s warehouse for a few weeks after Hurricane Sally’s landfall.

“During Hurricane Michael, we needed several warehouse personnel from other cooperatives,” Kimbro says. “We had five or 10 years of material that went through the warehouse at one time. There weren’t enough local employees to handle that volume. There have been times in the past where cooperatives have needed staking and engineering help or communications help. Basically, any position is available to help another cooperative.”

Local, State Response

WEC crews leave the Hartford office to respond to areas struck by Hurricane Sally in September.

One WEC line crew was working in Louisiana following Hurricane Laura when Hurricane Sally formed in the Gulf of Mexico. While meteorologists were predicting the storm would land near New Orleans, WEC officials called the men home.

The move proved prudent. The Category 2 storm actually made landfall near Gulf Shores, bringing damaging weather to the Wiregrass area.

At the height of the storm, Hurricane Sally caused more than 1,500 WEC members to lose power. Through preparation, hard work, and determination, though, WEC crews restored power locally within a day.

“Fortunately, the storm’s projected stronger wind gusts never really materialized here,” Kimbro says. “I think Sally really showed that our investment in reliability really paid off. We’re constantly working on our right of ways — trimming trees — and investing in better materials and technology.”

WEC’s Tammy Byrd answers a call at the outage operations center during Hurricane Sally.

The quick local response allowed WEC crews to assist in recovery efforts across the state. The day after Sally passed through the area, some WEC linemen assisted South Alabama Electric Cooperative, based in Troy, with repairs. During the course of the next week, WEC crews also served Brewton-based Southern Pine Electric Cooperative and in Baldwin EMC territory.

Had things been worse locally, Kimbro knows WEC employees would have embraced the challenge.

“An electric cooperative employee wears many hats,” he says. “At the end of the day, there are only 66 of us. When situations are at their worst, we have an opportunity to be our best. Sacrifices are made, and sacrifices are expected. Everyone does a good job with that.”

WEC Hurricane Response Timeline

  • August 27: Hurricane Laura makes landfall as a Category 4 storm in Louisiana.
  • August 28: First Wiregrass Electric Cooperative crew departs to assist Beauregard Electric Cooperative with repairs.
  • September 6: Second WEC crew leaves for Louisiana to relieve first crew and continue repairs.
  • September 13: Second crew returns home to prepare for Hurricane Sally.
  • September 15: Hurricane Sally is felt locally as fallen trees cause 1,121 outages on the Coffee Springs substation.
  • September 16: Hurricane Sally makes landfall near Gulf Shores as a Category 2 storm. Local outages peak at roughly 1,500, but power is mostly restored before midnight.
  • September 17: WEC crew assists South Alabama Electric Cooperative with repairs.
  • September 19-20: WEC crew assists Southern Pine Electric Cooperative with repairs.
  • September 21-24: WEC crew assists Baldwin Electric Membership Cooperative with repairs.
  • September 24: WEC crew returns home.
A Wiregrass Electric Cooperative line crew prepares to respond to a hurricane-stricken area in September.