When Hurricane Irene Ravaged Eastern North Carolina

The worst hurricane in eight years knocked out power to 239,900 electric cooperative services
By Michael E.C. Gery
When Hurricane Irene Ravaged  Eastern North Carolina

Inspecting Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative pole damage by boat in Rodanthe, looking north. (Lonnie Moore photo)

As Hurricane Irene churned its way toward land Friday, August 26, eastern North Carolina expected the worst and got it the next day. Prepared as families and businesses were for this storm, given the dire warnings and extensive news coverage during its approach, no one was prepared for the destruction and heartbreak it caused.

When Irene made landfall around 7:30 a.m., Saturday, August 27, at Cape Lookout it was downgraded to a Category 1 storm but still carried 85 miles-per-hour sustained winds and later spawned tornadoes that exceeded 130 mph. Its very wide path — hurricane force winds extending 90 miles outward, tropical storm force winds to 290 miles — tracked at about 15 mph northward, centered over Pamlico and Beaufort counties in mid-afternoon, then northeastward over Albemarle Sound and into Hampton Roads, Va. The storm sent the waters of Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, and the Pamlico and Neuse rivers, westerly at first, then returned a fierce surge easterly as the month's new moon caused a bloated high tide.

Eastern North Carolina's electric cooperatives stood by their storm centers monitoring conditions and issuing statements to members via news releases and online postings. As weather allowed their crews to inspect their systems safely, 15 cooperatives began reporting damage. More than 239,900 member meters were knocked out of service, leaving families and businesses without electric power. Virtually all power was cut off to Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island and Craven, Pamlico, Beaufort and Hyde counties. System damage and outages extended from Pender County north to Warren County and all points east. Early estimates of damage to the electric distribution systems came to about $12 million and continued to rise.

While people struggled to reorder their lives, having lost water and refrigerated food, as they wrung out flood-soaked clothing and carried into open air furniture, rugs and beds, as they tried removing trees and limbs that had crushed their buildings and gouged their grounds, as some even lost their homes entirely, they turned by the tens of thousands to their electric cooperatives for news of when their power would be restored.

The response

North Carolina's electric cooperatives' central supply and emergency dispatch center in Raleigh — Tarheel Electric Membership Association — coordinated more than 530 men from cooperatives in the central and western part of the state, as well as crews from cooperatives in Georgia and Tennessee, and contract service and tree crews. Co-ops also hired contract help on their own, swelling by six and eight times their own repair crew numbers. One co-op member heading west ahead of the storm shot a video from his vehicle showing truck after truck after truck heading east to begin power restoration. Seeing these crews come up the road in powerless neighborhoods, or just hearing that they were nearby, allowed storm-socked victims a relief that cannot be measured. Two days after the storm hit, co-ops had restored electricity to about half their members. By the morning of September 1, six days after the storm landed, electric power had been restored to 95 percent. Most of the rest were still out of reach or would never see power restored again. Six days amazed many consumer-members, but not as much as it amazed Fred Hackney, a crew leader for Tideland EMC, who said this storm damage was the worst he has seen in his 38 years at the co-op.

Tideland's service area — particularly in mainland Hyde County, southern Beaufort County and eastern Pamlico County — was slammed more than most. In places, the storm surge lifted away entire houses, while others stood flooded in up to six feet of water.

Access to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks was next to impossible for more than a week. Large sections of the only highway to Hatteras, Hwy. 12, were washed away as the surging Pamlico Sound slashed new inlets for the ocean. All 7,581 electric meters were out. When the island's 15-megawatt back-up diesel generator exhausted itself, Cape Hatteras Electric arranged to rent two 2-megawatt generators. With help from North Carolina Electric Membership Corp., the generation and transmission supplier owned by the state's cooperatives, the big generators were shipped to the island on the temporary ferry service that state government had running from Stumpy Point on the Dare County mainland. By September 1, all Hatteras villages and residents had continuous electric service from diesel generators, though consumers were asked to use it sparingly.

Nearly all electric service was out in systems maintained by Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative, Edgecombe-Martin County EMC and Roanoke Electric Cooperative.

Most of the co-ops affected were hampered in their early restoration efforts by damage caused to major transmission lines that carry high-voltage power to substations that serve large numbers of members. In most cases, these transmission lines are owned by other utilities, including Dominion North Carolina Power and Progress Energy. Midday on Sunday, some 10,000 Edgecombe-Martin County EMC members had no electricity, and the co-op estimated 70 percent were affected by a Dominion transmission line outage. One of Tideland EMC's steel transmission poles near the Walter B. Jones Bridge in Hyde County, built to withstand 130 mph winds, came down. Adding to their difficulties getting crews safely out, some co-op storm centers had no landline telephone service.

The communication

Communicating to consumers was of utmost importance to co-op storm center staff. Soon after people lose their electricity, they want to know when they will get it back. Co-op communication professionals, like management and line crews, worked day and night, even when their own homes and families had suffered. They posted on websites, Facebook and online maps continual updates on where crews were working and where power had been restored. They talked with news reporters, radio hosts who collaborated in non-stop regional broadcasts, local government officials and with individual members who called or sent e-mail asking for help and information.

Roanoke Electric, Carteret Craven Electric, Cape Hatteras Electric, South River EMC and Albemarle EMC gave up-to-the-hour information to their Facebook followers, as well as directly to those who posted questions and comments. Communication staff did their best to explain progress and thank members for being patient. Members heaped praise on the line crews.

At midday Sunday, August 28, Roanoke Electric member Linda Taylor posted on the co-op's Facebook: "Still in the dark. Still waiting for a straight answer. I'm not going away." And the co-op replied right away: "Ms. Taylor, our crews are continuing to work the major circuits in your area and working back toward services on secondary lines on those circuits. Based on progress our crews are making today, the projected restoration in your area and others on this circuit will be tomorrow."

Carteret-Craven's active Facebook, run by communication director Lisa Taylor-Galizia, drew much praise, including this from Jeremy Buseman: "This was fantastic work with beyond great turnaround time! . . . I've been through some bigger past hurricanes with another electric company and they never moved this quick or kept us this well informed." And one of the co-op's board members, Thom Styron of Beaufort, said, "I wish to commend all of the employees. During the hurricane, I thought of what the crews would face and I recalled the years of service by our friends David Chadwick and other directors who have passed and how their leadership in being prepared helps keep our system in good condition today."

Chris Powell, public relations manager at Albemarle EMC, said, "Facebook immediately emerged as the frontrunner for crisis communication. In the world we live in now, members not only expect real-time information, they expect it to come to them and they expect to be able to respond back to it...We found it a useful tool to address member concerns, and nip them in the bud. One member asked why our yard had many line trucks in it that weren't out working. We replied that crews were coming in all morning from all parts of the Southeast, and it took a little time to get the crews processed and loaded and into the field."

Judging from comments co-op staff and management received during the storm's aftermath, most members by far appreciated their work. Noel Council, a Tideland EMC member in his 70s, said it was the worst storm he's seen since 1954. Safe in Garner, he sent his neighbors in the South Creek community of southern Beaufort County a panoramic photo he made of the serene waterfront they all enjoyed because "It will never look that way again." Mr. Council also sent an e-mail message to Tideland's communications manager Heidi Jernigan Smith: "Irene completely destroyed our place on Betts Lane. We will not be rebuilding. Thank you for the great service you gave us over the past 15 years. You have a great task before you in restoring power to so many. I pray for the safety of your workers as they go about their tasks."

About the Author

Michael E.C. Gery is the editor of Carolina Country.

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