The Spirit of the Cooperative Business
The Co-op aids Alabama power restoration after Hurricane Sally demolishes territory.
Choptank Electric Cooperative sent 20 linemen and two supervisors to aid Baldwin EMC in their efforts to restore power to thousands of members who were without power due to Hurricane Sally. Headquartered in Summerdale, Alabama, Baldwin EMC serves over 78,000 members throughout Baldwin County and southern Monroe County in southwestern Alabama and is located between Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida along the Gulf. It is the largest electric cooperative in the state of Alabama.
Taking Alabama and the gulf shore by surprise, Hurricane Sally hit the coast early on Wednesday, September 16, 2020. Originally predicted to reach a maximum of 80 mph, Sally exceeded 130-mph winds, with flooding in certain areas over 30 feet. Baldwin EMC’s linemen had just arrived back from Louisiana – helping other cooperatives that had been hit by Hurricane Laura.
Baldwin EMC sent out a distress call that day, reporting that their entire system was down without power, and Choptank Electric Cooperative was one of over 100 cooperatives that answered that call.
Eleven line trucks assembled in Denton and left early Thursday morning to make the over 1,000-mile drive to Baldwin County.
“The drive was probably the most dangerous part of our trip,” said Terry Soley, Serviceman from Berlin District. “We saw many accidents including one with a bucket truck that had been on its way to Alabama.”
Our crews, thankfully, only encountered a blown tire, two dead batteries, and two headlight issues during the entire trip. Between traveling there and back, all the linemen remarked that traveling in smaller groups made it easier for pit stops, gas stops, and maneuvering in traffic.
Not Scared of the Work
Arriving on Friday night, our crews started working right away on Saturday in the mid-eastern part of Baldwin territory, right on the edge of the Alabama/Florida line — restoring power to hundreds of members through Wednesday. While sparsely populated, the area encompassed over 20 miles of lines that needed to be completely replaced, including lengthy taps, or wiring, that sometimes exceeded 1 mile, and only restoring one member at a time.
Most of the circuits and taps were on hilly ground, with roads completely washed out and out of reach for our trucks. While our crews restored power, managers coordinated crews, prioritized jobs, prepared and circulated materials, and walked the lines in advance so they could be prepared for the next day.
“The ‘bird dog’ (locator) we were appointed was the serviceman assigned to that area,” said Allen Slaughter, Assistant Manager of Safety, Training, and Compliance. “After the first day when he saw we took safety seriously and worked so well together, he told us he would leave us to it, and he did. It was a compliment, but at the same time, a hindrance because we didn’t have a map of their system, the poles weren’t labeled, making the task of finding taps impossible.”
With thousands of miles of lines down due to winds and hundreds of trees toppled, it was no wonder there were so many members without power.
“The damage was extensive,” said Slaughter. “The largest trees you didn’t think would come down, came down, and billboard signs were torn to pieces, like little pieces of paper instead of metal. Trees and poles were down everywhere, but our guys got in there and worked hard nonstop to restore power for those members.”
The Devastation Was the Hardest Part
The toughest work that our linemen performed was the first day when they had to replace seven spans of downed wire and poles which had been toppled by trees. Of course, it was pouring down rain all day.
“We got it all done in one day, though,” said Sterling Brown, Serviceman for Denton District. “We were really happy about how well we all worked as a team to get that three-phase line back up in one day. Our bird dog was impressed.”
The other tough part wasn’t the work though. It was seeing the devastation of the communities.
“Seeing toys destroyed, furniture sitting outside homes severely damaged, homes, properties, and families’ entire lives devastated by the extreme flooding that occurred, that was the hardest thing for me to see,” said Ray Layton, Serviceman for the Berlin District. “These people lost a lot in this hurricane, but they were all so sweet, so kind, and always so appreciative of the work we were doing and asking if we needed anything.”
The work ran smoothly, all thanks to the linemen in the field reporting damage and quickly restoring power to members. “Baldwin EMC’s linemen ran their system control, and they wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Slaughter. “It allowed them to see the work, report it in, know who needed to be turned on first, and overall, just made power restoration for us and them more efficient.”
Eat, Sleep, Breathe, Repeat
With over 100 cooperatives on-site to help restore power, Baldwin EMC enlisted the help of Storm Services, a contract company that specializes in the day-to-day needs of the workers.
“We called it ‘Tent City,’” said Slaughter.
“The services were incredible,” said Andrew Benson, Journeyman for the Berlin District. “Everything from the food tents, bunk trailers, bathrooms and showers, and even a laundry service. They had buses that transported you from Tent City to the parking lot full of everyone’s trucks and every night they would run fuel tanks around to make sure that everyone’s vehicle was full for the next day.”
“There were over 2,200 linemen there restoring power,” said Nathaniel Smith, Chief Lineman for Denton District. “And it was really tough navigating the camp because it was so large — you remembered your trailer number, 54, pretty quickly.”
‘Tent City’ was still a 40-minute drive to their assigned service territory during their stay, and that meant longer restoration times overall.
Bobcats, Fire Ants, Snakes, Oh My!
On top of all the regular line work that had to be accomplished, our crews had to worry about all the crazy critters running around, such as fire ants, alligators, bobcats, and poisonous rattlesnakes.
“We were told to watch out for rattlesnakes by the locals,” said Tom Simpson, Serviceman for Chestertown District. “We were trying to look up and assess the damage, but also keeping an eye out for snakes on the ground.” They never saw actual bobcats or alligators that the locals spun stories about, yet, seeing tracks in the woods of a “big kitten” was enough to keep them on their toes.
“There was no trouble getting volunteers for the buckets while we were back in the woods,” chuckled Jeff Coppage, Serviceman for Cambridge District.
The only snake they saw was captured by a member while they completed repairs at his property. Supposedly, the snake was hidden in the outside shower!
Southern Hospitality at its Best
The members of Baldwin County were so thankful for our crews’ help!
The men restored power to a radio station tower the first day and throughout the week they praised the ‘Choptank Electric Co-op from Maryland’ for getting them back on the air. They reported outage-restoration details throughout the day and shut down a few people who tried to call in and comment negatively about the restoration efforts.
“Everyone was so appreciative,” said Jeff Thomas, Journeyman for the Salisbury District. “They would offer everything from drinks, food, golf cart rides to different outage locations, everything. Not a single person we met had a bad thing to say.”
On their first day on the job, an older lady stopped on the road and told our crews that she was cooking dinner for them, where to go, and asked when she would expect them. From that night forward, she and the Gateswood Volunteer Fire Dept. volunteers made special meals for our crews. Catfish, hush puppies, potatoes, and cheesecake were on the menu one night, while on their last night in town they were served a fantastic steak dinner, in true Southern hospitality fashion.
“We are so grateful for the food and their hospitality. It was so kind and generous,” said Jason Gaskill, Manager of District Operations for Berlin at the RSC. “They couldn’t thank us enough for helping to restore their power, but it’s our job and passion. We are here to serve members, regardless of where they are located, and it’s what we love to do.”
The crews began to return home on Wednesday, stopping for the night in Georgia before returning to Maryland Thursday evening. Baldwin finished restoring power to all of its members on Friday, September 25.
To top off this large-scale achievement, our crews were recognized by Governor Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, U.S. Senator Van Hollen, and Congressman Andy Harris. “I would like to commend the line workers of the Choptank Electric Cooperative who heeded the call to action and helped in the relief efforts of Hurricane Sally in Alabama,” said Gov. Larry Hogan.
Volunteer crew as pictured (left to right): Pat Short, Chief Lineman (Chestertown); Sterling Brown, Serviceman (Denton); Cole Herr, Apprentice Lineman (Chestertown); Clint Mills, Apprentice Lineman (Chestertown); Jeff Thomas, Journeyman (Salisbury); Tom Simpson, Serviceman (Chestertown); Matt Semans, Journeyman (Chestertown); Greg Harman, Journeyman (Salisbury); Terry Soley, Serviceman (Berlin); Ray Layton, Serviceman (Berlin); Andy Kauffman, Chief Lineman (Salisbury); Jason Gaskill, Manager of District Operations (Berlin); Dean Samuel, Journeyman (Cambridge); Jeff Coppage, Serviceman (Cambridge); Scott Smart, Apprentice Lineman (Denton); Wayne Daubach, Journeyman (Denton); Wade Harris, Apprentice Lineman (Cambridge); Nathaniel Smith, Chief Lineman (Denton); Brandon Thompson, Apprentice Lineman (Salisbury); Andrew Benson, Journeyman (Berlin); Allen Slaughter, Assistant Manager of Safety, Training, & Compliance; Ethan Wallace, Apprentice Lineman