Noted Alabama historian Leah Rawls Atkins, who wrote Alabama Power’s corporate history, “Developed for the Service of Alabama,” offers her perspective on how the company goes about restoring power after storms.
Alabama Power Company historically has excelled in many areas, but the one demanding task it may be the best in the nation at mastering is storm restoration. This company tradition has a long history. Storms regularly have blown through Alabama, usually moving north from the Gulf of Mexico, challenging Alabama Power’s people to perform miracles.
I had the opportunity to witness the company’s reaction to storms when I was researching Alabama Power’s history. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan left a trail of destruction through Alabama and a Southern Company record number of customers without power that wasn’t surpassed until Hurricane Irma left 850,000 Georgia Power customers in the dark. (Alabama Power’s 825,701 customers without power after Ivan was the previous high.)
The morning after the storm, as I prepared to leave home for my research office in the Alabama Power Archives, my husband, George, said I should not go in because the CEO at the time, Charles McCrary, had enough to worry about other than history. I replied that I had an appointment to interview him, and I would be outside his office. If he could not see me, I had work to do anyway.
To my amazement, when McCrary knew I was sitting in the waiting area, he brought me into a meeting with a handful of his top people, waiting for reports from all areas with responsibility to initiate and support plans for restoration. That meeting gave me an appreciation of storm restoration and of Alabama Power’s commitment and organizational planning that over the years had been constantly improved through storm restoration experience.
Planning and technology
Storm restoration may be the worst of times, but the dedication and advanced planning of Alabama Power’s people get things moving fast. That morning, there was a conference call including all vice presidents and presidents of Southern Company operating companies, especially Power Delivery managers. Mississippi Power needed more cellphones. One manager spoke up and said that 200-plus phones were already on their way to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Looking over the statistics, Alabama Power’s vice president for Power Delivery sighed and remarked, “We can’t fix this. It’s too much.” Then he joined in plans to fix it as soon as possible. The company announced goals, and moved mountains to make sure the power was on before the restoration deadline.
Technology was essential. The computer system, SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition), told Transmission and Distribution engineers exactly where circuits were out. Alabama Power’s Call Center representatives took more than 900,000 calls in the days after the hurricane. They had told people to call on their house phones because the company’s computers could provide the address associated with that phone.
Alabama Power established goals and expectations for when power could be restored. There was a companywide, systemwide plan for restoration, which was tweaked and then put into place.
The Normandy standard
Alabama Power is part of the Southeastern Electric Exchange, a regional organization that has structures in place for electric utilities to cooperate and help each other when large storms cause extensive damage to a system. In Alabama, storms usually hit the Mobile area first, and then move north. With today’s technology, power companies can anticipate when a storm will be moving into their territory and start preparations before it arrives.
Storm restoration isn’t just about those men and women who climb power poles to get the lights on; it is also about employees who have to feed and house thousands of Alabama Power’s personnel and contract workers so they can repair the broken poles and lines. Arenas must be rented, and folding cots, pillows and blankets loaded from Alabama Power’s storage buildings and brought to the nearest place workers can be housed and fed. Water, soft drinks and good, nourishing food to provide strength for long workdays must be at hand and the crews need to know where to find their meals. Health professionals providing first aid and medical supplies must be available and crews notified where those helpers are located.
After World War II, the gold standard for organization became a common American saying: “It was planned like the Normandy Invasion.” Alabama Power takes each storm restoration, such as repairing 71,000 outages in Alabama from Irma and helping sister company Georgia Power get the lights back on in that state, as one of its central responsibilities and challenges. To witness the people going about the challenges and following long-made plans – Alabama Power’s own “Normandy Invasion” – is impressive.