Getting electricity back to the Gulf Coast

Heat. Humidity. Fifteen- to 16-hour days. Not to mention snakes and high-voltage wires.

Jeff Malaby knows that conditions will be tough as he and thousands of other electric utility workers head to the Gulf Coast to restore power in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. But repairing the damage to the electrical system is vital for the region to regain its footing.

Without power, essential services - from sewage plants to hospitals - can't operate. Police officers are unable to recharge their phones. The need is also pressing to repower the giant refineries that supply an important portion of the nation's gasoline. And at some point, the crews will start the long process of connecting homes so that air conditioners and dehumidifiers can run again.

"Electricity is always a priority in disasters," says Jane Bullock, a former chief of staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and now an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management. "For essential functions, it is just necessary."

The process is likely to be long. Some 2.8 million customers lost their power in the region. And it's not just a matter of restringing electric wire as crews did in Florida after Katrina passed through there.

"I expect to see complete devastation, and our efforts will be to completely rebuild the lines," says Mr. Malaby, a Dominion Virginia Power worker who just finished leading a team of 50 in south Florida.

But utility companies, particularly those in storm-prone areas, have considerable experience rebuilding the electrical system. They usually start with a broad assessment of damages, says Ken Hall, director of security, transmission, and distribution operations at the Edison Electric Institute in Washington: "They need to determine what needs to be replaced, to determine whether the power lines were blown down or something landed on them."

Mr. Hall says the normal process is for some crews to work on the transmission system - that is, the large voltage lines transporting electricity from the generating station to the substation. These lines are typically mounted on large metal towers that tend to survive storms better than the wooden poles moving electricity to residential and commercial customers.

At the same time, other crews will tackle the distribution system, working out from the substation. They will repair the main lines, then the lines leading into neighborhoods, and finally the hookup to homes, says Hall.

Getting the electricity back in downtown New Orleans, however, will be more challenging. For one thing, some of the electric lines are below ground. If mud and water have seeped into the electrical wiring, the cable will have to be replaced.

Depending on the damage, crews can often get electricity restored relatively quickly. After hurricane Ivan, they averaged between five and 10 days to rebuild the systems, says Hall.

Thursday, in the aftermath of Katrina, Florida Power & Light Company reported that it had returned power to 99 percent of its customers. (Some 15,490 were still without electricity.)

The Florida utility company also released 1,000 restoration workers - most from other utility companies - so they could head for the Gulf region.

Among them is Malaby and his 50- person crew from Virginia. Thursday, they were heading to Amite, La., a staging ground for repair work, to join up with more than 300 other workers from Virginia.

For the trip to the Gulf, Malaby is buying bottled water and nonperishable food supplies so the crew can be self-sustaining for a few days.

"We won't be getting three square meals a day, and we'll probably be sleeping on cots in a gymnasium," he says. "I have some concerns about the sanitary conditions as well."

But despite the harsh conditions, it's a job he's volunteered for. "There is a lot of job satisfaction in these efforts," he says. It's one of the reasons the crew will work extra hours.

"Sometimes if you are close to getting people back their power, you don't want to leave until you get it done," he says. "Some people are eternally grateful. There can be hugging and kissing and people offering you sodas."

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