Insights > From ice storms to hurricanes: line workers assist where they’re most needed

From ice storms to hurricanes: line workers assist where they’re most needed


Mutual-assistance partners played an important role in the restoration effort following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Mutual-assistance partners played an important role in the restoration effort following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

They say it takes a village. But when extreme weather events tear apart the communities we serve, it actually takes an army of electric line workers and contractors to put the pieces back together again.

Thanks to the industry’s mutual-assistance program, utilities can call upon each other in times of need to respond in large numbers, sending dedicated and skilled employees to rebuild the electric grid in a matter of days or weeks depending on the severity of storm damage.

Entergy Mississippi has sent its share of employees to help other companies through this program and has welcomed those from around the country when tornadoes, hurricanes and ice storms packed punches too hard for local crews to handle alone. 

Todd Watts, retired region manager who served in many operational capacities over the years, began leading Mississippi Power & Light crews to help others in 1997. In those days, however, it wasn’t the large contingent companies sent today, but a small group that grew with the need for response.

“Once MP&L became Entergy Mississippi, our construction and design employees were the first to respond to storms in other areas,” said Watts. “We started out with two supervisors and two teams, then pulled from networks if more personnel were needed. Some of the first utilities we assisted were Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Progress Energy and Georgia Power. Later, of course, we went on to assist many others including PEPCO Holdings, Con Edison and PSEG.”

Watts said initially the crew leader was responsible for all arrangements needed such as securing rooms and meals, getting the team from one location to another and coordinating with the host utility on worksites, equipment and procedures. Now, there is an entire team of people only handling logistics both within Entergy’s service territory and wherever our crews are needed.

“The process really improved over the years,” Watts added. “By having other Mississippi employees take the responsibility for ensuring crews had somewhere to sleep, for example, we were able to focus on what was most important — safety.”

Safety is a core value

Safety is a core value at Entergy. While the industry follows the same Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, the way in which companies prioritize or implement them may differ from one area to another. Before power restoration begins, the host electric company provides its mutual-assistance workers with an overview of affected equipment and clarifies local safety practices.

One such clarification following a Florida storm resulted in strengthened safety/operational practices at Entergy Mississippi, according to Watts.

“As far as safety goes, we learned a lot from each other in the early days of the mutual-assistance program,” Watts continued. “For example, when our Florida host insisted that we use grounding flags to prevent accidents by giving a clear visual of where crews were working, we had to adjust because we weren’t doing that back at home. Following that trip, we came back and immediately implemented them in Mississippi. The practice soon went companywide, and all operating companies are still using grounding flags today.”

In a similar fashion, when Entergy’s safeguards were more rigorous than those of the host utility, the two companies would agree to use Entergy safety procedures instead. 

“As the years went by, utilities came together and stacked hands on what the rules should be,” Watts said. “I remember when the two-span rule was implemented, sadly after we had already lost one of our own during 2003’s Hurricane Isabel restoration in Baltimore. As a result, and as hard as it may be during the aftermath of a major storm, crews had to stay that distance away until the line is known to be de-energized and grounded.” 

Once the two-span rule was implemented, operations had to work closely with safety to make sure we complied with the rule.  

“One of the 2004 Florida hurricanes really challenged our travel team because the area we were assigned was devastated – poles and wire were down everywhere – and we had to comply with the new two-span rule,” said Watts.  “We decided the larger crew would stay in a staging area while the crew lead and service team went in to clear the source and ground the line.  We were literally driving around poles and over conductor that was down to get to the source feed.”

Mutual assistance enhanced following series of storms

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Gustav and Ike in 2008 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 further enhanced cooperation among utilities whether they were investor-owned, municipalities or cooperatives. In fact, those devastating storms caused the power industry to enhance mutual assistance with the help of organizations like the Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Despite the challenges, long hours and time away from home, most line workers feel a sense of pride and camaraderie in getting the lights back on for those left in the dark. Whether retired or still working, crew leader or scout, seasoned or new, they all say that the gratitude customers show them is priceless.

Recent Entergy Mississippi retiree Clarence Irby, who joined the company in 1987, said he has pretty much seen it all. From the 1994 Mississippi ice storm to 2018’s Hurricane Michael, he always found it amazing how crews from around the country join forces for a common cause.

“Since we all have the same skill set, we’re able to understand each other and pull together as we repair the damage and restore power,” said Irby. “When people see us coming down the road, they feel a sense of relief and are deeply appreciative because they know we’re there to help. The simple fact that their lives will return to some semblance of normalcy sooner rather than later is a big boost and I always felt so thankful I was able to be there for them.”

Current Entergy Mississippi lineman Greg Garrett said that while getting large numbers of customers back on at once is always rewarding, he finds that getting down to the smaller neighborhood or street levels makes a bigger impact on those in the hardest-hit areas.

“Helping customers who have been without power the longest — sometimes for weeks — brings an entirely different feeling to the process,” said Garrett. “If they couldn’t leave the area, they were just stuck there, making do as best as they could. When the lights come on, the refrigerator starts running, the stove and microwave work and they can cool or heat their homes; they’re so relieved. That makes the mutual-assistance program totally worth it.”

As of April 2023, Entergy has received 44 EEI Emergency Response Awards for restoration and mutual-assistance work.