The following first appeared as a Guest Editorial in the Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018 edition of the Morganton News-Herald:
Old Man Winter has visited early this year. The November 23rd ice storm was a perfect sign that it is time to remind citizens and customers of standard operating procedures in winter storm events. The storm reemphasized the importance of an aggressive and well-maintained tree trimming program. We were all reminded that even in this day and age of technology - and lives that are controlled by the device of convenience known as the smart phone - there are times when Mother Nature has a different plan.
City electric crews spent the early part of Thanksgiving Day performing upgrades to power systems of local industrial customers. They worked to complete the necessary, planned equipment upgrades for these industrial customers on a holiday so our work did not interfere with the companies’ production capabilities during normal business hours. This work finished around 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
Then came the perfect storm.
Late Friday night, on Thanksgiving weekend, with leaves still on the trees, precipitation hit the region and brought below freezing temperatures with it, causing icy conditions. The City first received reports of a power outage affecting approximately 385 customers in the Enola Road area shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday. Crews had the power back on for the affected customers in slightly more than two hours.
Precipitation continued with temperatures below freezing. The on-call electric crew called in extra help as needed. As power outages developed throughout the early morning, 90 percent of the City’s linemen were on hand by 6 a.m. and working to get the power back on for the City’s customers. Some crews were purposely held back so they could relieve the crews already at work when needed. To ensure safety, prevent mistakes, and comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, electric crews are only allowed to work for 16 hours at a time.
Widespread power outages continued to develop across the region throughout much of the day Saturday. The precipitation stopped Saturday morning, but the damage was done. Trees and limbs continued to fall under the weight of the ice. City crews worked steadily and as rapidly as the elements would allow. Crews stopped only once to eat during their 16 hour shift.
Throughout the day Saturday, the City’s Public Works crews and the Public Safety Department worked to clear and block roads, respectively, so that linemen could access various areas and work undisturbed to restore power for customers. COMPAS cable, phone, and internet service was also interrupted during the widespread power outages. In some cases, COMPAS nodes that provide internet service to customers are in areas supplied by Duke Energy’s power service, and therefore will not work until power is restored by Duke Energy. This can even happen in areas where customers are supplied by City electric service, as the COMPAS node may still be supplied power service by Duke Energy.
The number of City customers affected by electrical outages peaked at about 7:30 a.m. Saturday with slightly more than 3,500 customers without power. Electrical outages complicated matters, causing the City’s internal phone system to go down. City Information Technology staff was called in when the issue was discovered early Saturday morning, and had the phone systems repaired before noon. During the time the phone system was down, City staff followed normal procedure and manually recorded reports of outages in order to cross-reference them as major repairs were completed. The “icing on the cake” occurred at approximately 4:10 a.m. when a major fiber line of a private carrier went down and cell phone service became sporadic at best. The downed fiber line rendered using cell phones as a backup communication tool impossible. The fiber line came back online around 3:30 a.m. Monday.
The City’s protocol in a widespread power outage requires linemen to respond and restore power to the areas where the greatest number of affected customers exist. Minor repairs and areas with lesser numbers of affected customers are repaired as reports are received after the initial repairs. It is important for customers to understand that standard procedure for utility companies is for debris removal to occur first. Power restoration is next. Phone, internet and television service is next and only after power is restored. In the interest of safety, cable technicians are not allowed to work around downed power lines.
By early Saturday afternoon, the vast majority of City electric customers had their power restored. City crews then began investigating the remaining reports of smaller, individual outages that continued through Saturday evening and were affecting less than 100 City customers. The first crews that reported in for work in the twilight hours of Saturday morning were relieved Saturday evening by standby crews. These crews continued to investigate reports of power outages and make repairs as necessary. All City customers affected by the large-scale outages had their power restored by 1:30 a.m. Sunday, approximately 24 hours after the first reports of power outages in the City were received.
I want to thank the Electric Services employees, the Public Works staff, Public Safety and the IT staff for their prompt response. It is truly an honor to work with crews who value teamwork and place top priority on service to our citizens. Your commitment to work over the holiday weekend under adverse conditions is evidence of how much you care.
I also want to thank the customers who showed great patience in waiting for their power, phones, television and internet to be restored. The kind comments and words of encouragement go a long way.
Note: On Saturday, the City’s Public Works Department cleared five dump truck loads of brush to allow for power restoration. On Monday, Public Works collected 68,000 pounds of brush left over from the storm.