Zeta’s historic impact will be remembered in Alabama

Zeta’s historic impact will be remembered in Alabama
Jorge Gonzalez of Alabama Power out of Tuscaloosa works to restore power after Hurricane Zeta in Pine Hill. (Dan Anderson / Alabama NewsCenter)

In the few days since Hurricane Zeta smashed through the state, Alabama Power crews and support teams have been working day and night to get the lights back on as quickly and as safely as possible.

By Wednesday, with more than 6,000 personnel from two dozen states and Canada lending their support, the company had restored power to 99% of customers statewide.

“Our crews faced multiple challenges during this difficult restoration, but we know it also wasn’t easy for many of our customers,” said Scott Moore, Alabama Power senior vice president of Power Delivery. “We appreciate our customers’ patience throughout this multiday restoration effort.”

Instead of weakening as it reached the Gulf Coast, Zeta gathered and maintained strength as it tore through Alabama. It will be remembered as one of the worst storms in the state’s history.

More than 600,000 Alabama Power customers lost service at some point because of Zeta, with its impact rivaling Hurricane Katrina and the deadly April 2011 tornadoes. Zeta’s high winds – which barely eased as they roared through – brought down trees and power lines and damaged substations from Dauphin Island to northeast Alabama. The storm also caused significant damage in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and all the way to Virginia.

Alabama Power wraps up restoration from Hurricane Zeta from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Within a day of Zeta making landfall, Alabama Power teams had restored service to more than half the customers affected by the Category 2 hurricane. But the dramatic damage identified by company assessment teams across a broad swath of the state made it clear the ongoing restoration operation would be extensive and daunting.

Eastern and southern Alabama suffered the most damage, with tree-blocked roads hampering crews in many places. Particularly hard-hit were areas in Calhoun, Chilton, Clarke, Clay, Dallas, Randolph and Talladega counties. Those locations posed extra challenges because of severely damaged infrastructure and difficult terrain in some spots.

But the work to restore service never stopped. Crews worked through the weekend and by Tuesday night had replaced more than 1,100 poles, more than 1,000 transformers and 1,950 spans of wire. In some cases, crews made temporary fixes to get the lights on as quickly as possible and will have to return to make permanent repairs.

“I have lived through hurricanes since Camille in 1969 – Ivan in 2004 and Zeta are the only two that have scared me,” said James “Big Daddy” Lawler, a lifelong resident of Camden and longtime host of the Gettin’ Outdoors with BDL radio show and podcast.

“The aftermath destruction in the rural areas was unbelievable. I don’t know how they have gotten as much service back as quick as they have, given the terrain and remote locations. Those guys are remarkable.”

Alabama Power crews take a “hub and spoke” approach to restoration following major storms. After focusing immediately on restoring critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, police and fire stations, the company concentrates on making the fixes that will get the greatest number of customers on as fast as possible.

Often that means special teams taking on the damage to the large transmission lines that bring power from the generating facilities to cities and communities. At the same time, distribution crews are attacking the downed wires and poles that run from substations through neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the work is 24/7 at the Alabama Control Center and the company’s distribution control centers (DCCs) across the state, where experts work with cutting-edge technology to oversee the grid and the shift the flow of power.

At the company’s regional DCCs, teams supported each other, from Mobile to Birmingham, Tuscaloosa to Anniston, and coordinated with field crews to re-energize neighborhood lines as soon as possible. Amid the height of the storm recovery, they also worked with first responders and 911 centers to protect emergency workers when crises, such as reports of downed lines or overnight house fires, required quick action to reroute service or turn off power temporarily for safety.

“We really worked to help each other, across the state, with a one-team philosophy,” said Ben Ayer, DCC supervisor in Birmingham.

With Tuesday’s elections looming, storm teams focused on ensuring polling places had power well before the doors opened. The company’s community relations managers kept in close contact with elections officials, as well as state and county emergency management agencies and public officials (before, during and after the storm) so they could keep their constituents and stakeholders apprised of restoration progress.

Members of the Alabama Public Service Commission, meeting in Montgomery on Tuesday, praised the company’s restoration efforts amid clearly difficult conditions.

“Thank you to the real heroes of this storm: the linemen,” Commission President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh said during the panel’s monthly meeting.

Customers, too, expressed appreciation for the hard work of getting the lights on, although the company acknowledges that the storm and its aftermath has been frustrating for many who spent time without service.

At the company’s business office in Centreville, in Bibb County, a customer slipped a note into the overnight drop box Monday evening. It read: “God bless all the Ala Power employees who worked so hard to restore power to Bibb. It is appreciated!!”

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