Restoring power to disaster zones

How a storm boss and his engineering team restored power in the wake of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav.

Hurricane aftermath Certain types of engineer may find that their expertise is called upon in emergencies. The electrical utilities industry is just one sector of engineering that is critical to disaster recovery. We caught up with "storm boss" Randy Helmick of Entergy Corporation [new window]; the New Orleans-based utility company that took the brunt of Hurricane Katrina, Rita, and Gustav.

Most of Helmick's career has been based along the US' Golf Coast, an area exposed to dangerous weather conditions from hurricanes through to ice storms. Accumulating a lot of experience dealing with extreme weather, he was drafted in to lead the systems emergency response team at Entergy.

"Dealing with disasters is a pretty elaborate process. An awful lot of planning and forethought goes into how to address each problem," he explains.

"Most of the work actually is all the planning. We have to identify a lot of the potential threats, and then take on board the lessons we've accumulated over time, incorporating them into our storm response procedures."

Members of his team are re-trained every year, and practice emergency scenario drills.

Training becomes a reality

"We try to think of scenarios that are absolutely worst case. Sometimes these actually comes to pass," he says.

The scenario that turned into reality was sadly Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, immediately followed by Hurricane Rita in Texas.

Getting there is half the problem. In the case of Katrina, a portion of New Orleans was below sea level and it was impossible to attempt restoration until the crew could access the areas, which meant waiting until the areas underwater were pumped free.

"Early on, we were able to restore power to areas that hadn't flooded badly such as the business district. But in some flooded areas our substations were underwater so we couldn't begin restoration until the water was pumped away.

Restoring power to an area the size of the UK

"Many people forget that the land area affected by these storms was not just New Orleans itself. In fact, the land area that had electric outages was an area roughly the size of Great Britain. It was a huge area including four different states - Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. We had plenty of work to do in all of those surrounding states to restore power before we were even able to enter the central portion of New Orleans," he says.

"One of the biggest challenges that people don't often think of is the logistical demands; such as feeding the workers. It's very much like a military operation. A lot of the analogies we use, and lessons that we learn, are from large-scale military operations.

"Logistical support of large numbers of people who are responding to major outages like this is probably one of the biggest challenges," continues Helmick. "Remember that since there's no power and all the infrastructure is damaged, your work crew has to be self sufficient. And they will need housing, food, fuel, showers and sanitation facilities."

For all the storms Entergy had to deal with that year, the workforce - involving those dealing with logistics such as cooks and cleaners - totalled over 20,000 people.

Getting essential services up and running

So what happens when the emergency response team is drafted in? Well the most important things for Helmick's workers are to get power back to the most important services and infrastructure - police, fire, water, sanitation, hospitals.

"Critical infrastructure like police stations, fire stations, hospitals and so forth often provide their own onsite emergency generation, however these are our top priority," he says. "It's the services and infrastructure that are required for the health and safety of the public that come first. Then we just try to prioritise based on what gets the largest number of customers back on the fastest, so that the inconvenience and misery on the general population is eliminated as quickly as possible."

It's a tough job, but one that Helmick feels passionate about, and his employees go through rigorous training to become part of the team.

"There's detailed training that we do for everyone that's involved in storm restoration, which is a large percentage of our total company workforce. You can essentially sign up for 'emergency duty'. You have your normal role but when a storm comes you go to battle stations and are given a new assignment, which you would have been trained for," he says.

Engineers on emergency duty

"It's almost like going into wartime conditions. Interestingly, people really like doing it, even though in the case of they've had only training and not much experience for it, typically people are very good about engaging in emergencies because of the need is very obvious, and the results are immediate and very gratifying. It's very obvious that what you're doing is making a difference for people. "

This is just one example of the difference you can make in a career within engineering. Perhaps this will be your field of choice and you'll go on to save endless lives through providing emergency power restoration. Perhaps instead you'll go on to develop a new way to generate renewable energy enabling millions in the developing world to have electricity in their homes, schools and hospitals. You might even work on a road that repairs itself after an earthquake.

One thing's for certain, membership of the IET will help you achieve your goals. Take a look at the IET on Campus, which will give you just a taster of the benefits membership offers. Come along to a local network event, find a mentor, apply for a scholarship, take advantage of Career Manager and INSPEC: the list is endless. 

Join the IET to become part of a network of over 150,000 engineers and technologists across 127 countries. Already a member? Become active, and start making a difference to the world today.