At this point, for those not among the hardest hit, Hurricane Irma probably seems like a fast-fading afterthought in a world of endless news and people struggling to recover from even more devastating events. But as you can imagine, we’re still thinking about Irma because we focus on planning for and recovering from severe weather year-round. As you read this, we’re preparing for the next major storm … which we all hope won’t arrive for many years.
And in looking back at our Irma experience to help us improve our processes in service to you – while we maintain our commitment to safety above all – several stories stand out that we wanted to share. They join countless others that aren’t recounted here; stories that belong to people who took on tasks far outside of their typical TECO duties in some cases. Stories from those at all our power stations who maintained safe generation – including Bayside Power Station, where 400 megawatts continued to go out to our customers as Irma’s winds howled and wailed. These are our stories and your stories together.
First up: numbers tell a story
Due to damage from the Hurricane Irma, we replaced 207 power poles; 356 transformers; 225,042 feet of cable/conductor wire; 1,595 lightning arrestors; 17,544 fuses and 23,881 splices.
To help with our restoration efforts, from other utilities we welcomed 2,521 line workers, 621 tree trimmers and 266 damage assessors.
To begin restoration, we had to check our transmission and distribution lines to determine the extent of the damage. (We manage more than 11,000 miles of distribution lines and 1,300 miles of transmission lines over four counties in Florida.)
Let this serve as a little groundwork for accounts of the power restoration work (and more) below.
A key connection at the right moment
In bad weather of any kind, Tampa Electric customers know they can get important updates about power outages and restoration on our Outage Map. During and after Hurricane Irma, the number of people clicking on the map skyrocketed – so much so that our Google Map page-loading application maxed out.
On the Saturday of the storm, with severe winds picking up, TECO Services President Sarah MacDonald reached out to her network of business leaders, including leadership expert and blogger Marcie White – who, it turns out, had connections of her own. Those connections pointed the way to the executive level of Google’s Cloud Services team.
And with that crucial link, our request to Google went through and the company updated the number of visitors our Outage Map could accommodate. You can read more at Marcie’s blog post on the topic, which also has some valuable leadership advice.
Hours with a live wire
If a babysitter stuck with precocious children in post-hurricane chaos could be the plot of a movie, replace the kids with a downed power line – and make the babysitter Rick Richmond, project manager with Tampa Electric’s New Construction team – and you’ve got a very real (and dangerous) situation on your hands.
That was the scene in Seffner after the storm when Richmond, as part of a TECO damage assessment team, discovered a downed power line around 8 p.m.
“A downed power line can cause serious injury, even death.” Richmond said. “Most people know this, but at night, with everything in disarray after the storm, it might not have been obvious to someone who was rushing to check on their home.”
So Richmond sat in his TECO truck, a safe distance from the downed wire, and waited for line crews to arrive on the scene to make repairs. Then he waited some more. With so many needs for line crews to tackle in the community, he kept waiting. Early the next day, the crews arrived and Richmond was relieved (in multiple ways) – providing one more example of our commitment to helping keep the public safe, even if it takes one person at a time.
Here’s one with a nice ring to it
In crisis situations, things get lost sometimes – and sometimes those things have irreplaceable value. More than once during and after Hurricane Irma, this included wedding rings.
But fortunately, there are ways people can connect. And when a lineman found a wedding ring at a Pasco County staging area for emergency responders, he let his wife know about it. She posted notice of the discovery on Tampa Electric’s Facebook page – and then followed up with an update:
The owner of the wedding ring contacted me!!!! I’m in tears!!! He is a lineman from Indiana that works for PIKE! My husband and son are both lineman and this is so heart warming. Thank you so much for getting this out. I wouldn’t have been able to find the owner without FB!!! The Mr and Mrs are very appreciative.
A generous gesture from a mystery man
Tampa Electric Meter Worker Kevin Fales spent a lot of time with crews from other utilities after Irma. He saw outstanding examples of hard work and empathy from crews and customers alike. But few things can compare to the moment in a mobile home community near Winter Haven when he arrived with a team to replace meter poles. This is equipment that, in accordance with Florida Public Service Commission guidelines, is the customer’s responsibility to replace. (Other components of the meter apparatus are the responsibilities of Florida’s utilities to fix or replace.) For mobile homes, meter poles must be installed apart from the homes themselves, again according to regulations. But this can also make them vulnerable to falling tree limbs.
With meter poles in place, TECO crews could make other repairs and get the power back on for the customers. Yet as they got out of their trucks, a customer from one of the mobile homes approached Fales.
“He said a lineman from Michigan had been there, listened to an elderly woman who couldn’t afford a pole…and just like that, the lineman took $180 out of his wallet and gave it to her to buy a new pole,” Fales said. “Then he did the same thing for three other customers on the street who were in tough spots financially.”
Who was this mystery lineman?
“He didn’t give his name or anything,” Fales said, “but the customer who spoke to us said he saw Michigan plates on his truck. Whoever he is, he went above and beyond in service to customers that weren’t even his own. And it really showed what the spirit of cooperation is like when people from across North America all worked together to help communities get their power back on.”
Houston, we have TECO team members who care about your hurricane-related problems
Hurricane Irma could’ve almost been an afterthought for TECO’s Barbara and Justin Smith. That’s because by that time, they’d already seen the results of Hurricane Harvey up close. After that giant storm hit Texas, the family headed west to help communities reeling from the kind of devastation that much of the Tampa Bay area managed to escape with Irma.
“We just packed a few things for ourselves and some supplies and drove with our two kids to try and do whatever it was we could, no matter how small,” Justin said of his trip to Houston.
The family’s experience could fill several blog posts and maybe even a memoir. They saw tremendous destruction but incredible acts of kindness and generosity as well, and through their work with the so-called Cajun Army (a land-based counterpart to the renowned Cajun Navy), they helped prepare staging areas to feed and shelter people who had evacuated.
“It was a way to help and to show our children what it means to be of service to others and also illustrate just how lucky we were that we were spared,” Justin said, adding that the storm duties in Tampa during Irma for him and his wife – just about everyone at TECO has a storm assignment – were far more routine.
Nevertheless, he said, “I hope we’re done with hurricanes for a little while at this point.”
The stories to come
Unfortunately, hurricane season isn’t over until Nov. 30. That brings a lot of potential no one wants for new storm-related stories. But for all our more than 750,000 valued customers (which include many of us as TECO employees), the best stories of all – when the next storm arrives – may well be the ones where we all worked together to prepare our homes and families. Where we took every reasonable precaution to stay safe. Where we looked after our loved ones and greeted the sun when it finally came through the clouds.
Irma post-script P.S.: To all first responders and electric utility workers, Florida Governor Rick Scott wants to say thanks for your efforts during Irma:
As a small gesture of appreciation and recognition for your service, you will be able to enjoy license-free fishing through June 30, 2018. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will accept official first responder or electric utility credentials in lieu of a license during this time. For more information, please visit: www.myfwc.com/license/HurricaneIrmaGovernorRecognition.