Dozens of Xcel Energy workers from the region were part of what industry experts are calling the largest power restoration effort in the history of the United States.
The 36 Xcel employees left from the Amarillo Technical Center on Sept. 10 and spent more than a week in Florida helping thousands of people get power to their homes and businesses in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
Chester Brown, Xcel Energy director of design and construction for the Texas North Division, said the workers from around the Texas Panhandle, South Plains and New Mexico started to notice Irma’s destruction as they approached Tampa.
“There were limbs on both sides of the road,” Brown said.
“We were kind of surprised at the lack of broken poles for a Category 4 hurricane.”
There were about 7 million people in Florida without power when the Xcel workers arrived, which was almost immediately after Irma made landfall because the crew was on the road just before the storm worked its way through the state.
The North Texas Division employees from Xcel responded to Florida after receiving a request from the Edison Electric Institute through its network of regional groups across the country, including the Midwest Mutual Assistance Group to which the local Xcel division belongs.
“The industry’s Irma response is one of the largest and most complex power restoration efforts in U.S. history,” said EEI President Tom Kuhn in a news release. “The number of workers dedicated to the Irma response grew by almost 10,000 as initial damage assessments were completed. … almost 60,000 workers from more than 250 investor-owned electric companies, public power utilities, and electric cooperatives — from across the United States and Canada — are supporting the Irma restoration efforts.”
By the time they left after more than a week there, power in the state was about 99 percent restored, said Xcel spokesman Wes Reeves.
The local Xcel workers spent time in Tampa and in Fort Myers, Fla., where they and others had to bunk in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As they made their way through the Fort Myers area, Brown said Xcel employees were not able to use their bucket trucks and instead had to climb to get their work done, trimming trees and splicing together damaged lines.
“Fortunately we sent several apprentices who are expected to climb poles,” Brown said.
With so much manual labor to be done, Brown said one of the biggest safety issues was dealing with the heat and humidity during late summer in Florida.
“We had to be conscious of that and spend no more than 30 to 40 minutes up there at a time,” he said. “Some guys would say they were seeing camera flashes and had to stop.”
Safety was a major concern not only of the Xcel employees but also of all of the power companies working in Florida.
Brown said he and the others had to attend safety briefings with the local representatives — the Tampa Electric Co. and Florida Power &Light in Fort Myers — to make sure that they had the correct personal protective equipment and adhered to the highest possible safety procedures.
But Brown said the drive down — which took three days as they traveled among the residents trying to get back to their homes — safety briefings and staying in FEMA trailers were worth it when they were able to restore power to neighborhoods.
“They were never anything but nice to us and hospitable,” Brown said. “When we would get a place up and running, people would run outside and start screaming and yelling.”