Answering the Call

October 2021

Suwannee Valley Electric crews aid cooperatives in need

Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC) goes to great lengths to prepare for every storm that might hit our system. But even when our grid doesn’t take damage, our linemen are ready to spring into action to help other cooperatives that have been affected.

It’s one of the core principles that guides SVEC: cooperation among cooperatives. Whenever an electric cooperative sustains serious damage that its own crews can’t handle on their own, they put out a call for help through their state cooperative association. Nearby cooperatives will take a look at what resources they can spare and recruit workers who are willing to make a trip to help.

“It’s all voluntary. They never have an issue filling that list, either,” says James Humphrey, a journeyman lineman who joined linemen Derek Fillyaw, Clay Stratton, and Jimmy Williams to help West Florida Electric Cooperative make repairs after Tropical Storm Fred earlier this year.

Often, those trips can involve facing new challenges on unfamiliar systems. After Hurricane Ida, journeyman lineman Evan Skeen traveled to Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, with linemen Matt Dickerson, Austin Long, and Jerrad Boles to help Dixie Electric Membership Cooperative with recovery efforts there.

For Skeen, the damage from Ida reminded him of what he saw in Florida after Hurricane Michael. And, he says, “A lot of the local people said Ida was worse than Katrina. You didn’t have the levees break, but you had more wind damage and property damage.”

That’s not to say there was no flooding. Because of all the water, Skeen and his crew were only able to make use of the two pickup trucks and two bucket trucks they brought with them for the first couple of days. After that, they relied on airboats to take them to transmission lines, where they handled repairs the old-fashioned way.

“We did a lot more climbing than I’ve done in a long time. And I don’t think any of us had ever climbed anything like that,” Skeen says. “Those were 70-foot poles when we’re used to climbing 35-foot poles.”

Navigating the Unknown

Even when the work itself is routine, operating on a new system still comes with its share of challenges for visiting line crews. When Humphrey assisted West Florida Electric, the work of clearing downed trees and repairing broken lines wasn’t anything his crew hadn’t seen before. But doing it in a new setting required extra vigilance.

“You can get into a bad situation real quick on an unknown system if you’re not paying attention,” he says. “The guys you go out there with are normally ones you work with on a day-to-day basis, so you communicate very well. It makes it a lot easier when you’re working with people who do their part the right way.”

When they arrive at another cooperative, visiting crews are typically assigned a “bird dog” — someone familiar with the system to guide them through their work. For Humphrey and his crew, the local cooperative also booked their stay at a hotel. Skeen and his crew were put up in a hotel for their first few nights and stayed at a Christian camp for boys for the next four nights. Then, friends of their airboat captain offered to take them in.

“They cooked for us, washed our clothes, and had beds for us,” Skeen says. “They were very good people and had crawfish etouffee for us the first night. It was like staying with family. We’ve talked about going back and visiting them sometime.”

Light in the Darkness

Visiting crews often work 16-hour days before getting a chance to rest. But nothing does more to keep them going through the long hours and difficult work than the gratitude of the local people.

“When you’ve been working on something for two or three days and finally get the power turned on, you’ll hear people cheering and clapping,” Humphrey says. “They’re so appreciative. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”

Ten days into the recovery in Louisiana, Skeen noticed that many households kept at least one lamp switched on.

“That’s their indicator for when the power is back on,” Skeen says. “When we came through they’d tell us they hadn’t had power in a week. They’d go running inside telling everyone, ‘We’re gonna have lights!’ It’s a good feeling.”

Often, the relationships built during those visits long outlast the damage done by the storm. Humphrey and his crew stay in touch with the bird dog who showed them around West Florida’s system, while Skeen and his crew are making plans to visit one of the local crews they worked within Louisiana.

In all, Skeen and his crew worked 10 days to restore power after Hurricane Ida, while Humphrey and his crew stayed three full days at West Florida Electric. After those long days, there’s little chance to rest when they return. Both had time to return home and get a solid night’s sleep before waking up bright and early to serve the members of SVEC. But they aren’t complaining.

“It’s a quick turnaround,” Humphrey says. “You get home, and it’s another day. I had time to take a shower, go to bed and get back to work. That’s just the way it is.”