The Transylvania Times -

Outage Response Complicated By COVID-19

 

Last updated 4/15/2020 at 8:15pm

Matt McGregor

Utility workers have been working around the clock to get power back on for so many.

Severe storms with high winds and heavy rain swept through the Southeast on Sunday night into Monday morning, leaving thousands without power in Transylvania County alone.

As of 2 p.m., Wednesday, 1,425 Duke Energy customers and 47 Haywood EMC customers were still without power in the county.

Duke Energy and Haywood EMC said crews had been working around-the-clock to restore power to residents and like seemingly every other aspect of life, COVID-19 has complicated and slowed the response to restore power.

A representative from Duke Energy, Grace Rountree, said Western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina were their hardest hit coverage areas, and Ken Thomas from Haywood EMC said Transylvania County was their hardest hit coverage area.

"It's really strange," he said. "I've been doing this for 38 years, and I can never remember a time when we were getting as many outages as quick as we were getting power restored. We had around 11 p.m. on Sunday night, 5,000 people out system wide...and working through the night and to the next day at 11 a.m. the next morning...we still had around 5,700 out, which was more than we had out when we started around 10:30 or 11 p.m."

Thomas said that though the storms had stopped by Monday morning, the ground was so saturated from water, trees were still coming down on lines throughout the region.

At the outage peak, Thomas said about 11,000 customers were without power at 2 a.m. on Monday morning.

"It's all hands on deck," Rountree said of Duke Energy's response. "We have pulled in additional Duke Energy resources from out of state.... We've also brought in crews from Florida, as of this morning (Tuesday), and we are bringing crews in from the Midwest as well today. It really will be an all hands on deck effort to make sure that every last customer is restored."

Thomas said the COVID-19 pandemic slowed Haywood EMC's response to restoring power because many are unwilling to send in additional crews from out-of-town to help with the effort. Typically, Thomas said, Haywood EMC would pull in 16 or 17 additional crews for an outage like this, but they were only able to secure two additional crews to help this time around. COVID-19 has meant that there are no hotels to house utility workers, and people have also been worried about going to areas and spreading the virus, Thomas said.

Thomas said Haywood crews were working 16-18 hour shifts and some of the out-of-town crew workers were sleeping in their trucks between shifts.

In an outage like this one, Thomas said, crews work in shifts, with one shift, for example, working from 6 a.m. until midnight, with workers asked to return to work the following morning at 6 a.m. again.

Rountree said Duke Energy has had to adjust its response during the pandemic as well.

"Typically when we'd have a big storm come in, we'd have these big staging sites," she said. "I'm sure you've seen pictures of them in hurricanes, for example, where you have all of these line workers who meet together and they're very close together, and they're all in one designated area. We can't do that. So, we're having to be creative and making sure we're following the CDC guidelines."

To comply with COVID-19 safety measures, Rountree said Duke Energy is providing employees with additional protective equipment like masks, changing eating arrange-ments to grab-and-go boxed lunches instead of large family-style feeding sites, and trying to keep people as separate as possible in hotels and while in transit.

Rountree and Thomas also said there is a hierarchy of who gets power restored first, with a priority on restoring power to critical infrastructure first and then focusing on the places where work would restore power to the most people and working backward from there.

Duke Energy customers still facing power outages can visit http://www.outagemap.dukeenergy.com to view a real-time outage map or call (800) 769-3766 for more information. Haywood EMC customers can view outages at http://www.haywoodemc.com/outage-information or call (828) 452-2281 or toll-free at 1(800) 951-6088 for more outage information.

Along with the power outages, local emergency responders have had their own issues. For one, the Transylvania County Rescue Squad (TCRS) responded to a call on Davidson River Road in Pisgah Forest on Monday morning to a van that had tried to drive through floodwaters and stalled.

Sean Trapp

This massive pine tree that fell between Pisgah Forest Elementary and Davidson River School took out power and blocked traffic on Ecusta Road.

Upon approaching the vehicle, responders noticed the vehicle was empty and found the driver had made it out safely, according to a post on TCRS's Facebook page. However, just one hour later, the squad responded to another call at the same vehicle, where a family member of the driver tried to go back to the abandoned vehicle and realized he or she couldn't make it back to dry land.

"A few obvious things to point out here," said the squad's Facebook post, "you should never try to drive through water, no matter how deep you think it is or how fast you think it's moving. Just because DOT hasn't put barricades out yet, doesn't make it safe to cross water. It only takes a few inches of water to stall a car and only a foot of water to pull your vehicle off the road.

"You should also never enter flood waters to retrieve personal items from a vehicle. Not only did these individuals put themselves at risk, they also put the rescuers at risk. 'Turn around, don't drown.' We often feel like we are preaching to the choir about floodwaters, yet we still have folks that get stranded because of poor choices. Be safe, and be smart!"

 
 

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