PEC lends a hand to 2 Florida cooperatives in wake of Hurricane Irma

21 employees worked 8 straight 16-hour workdays to get the lights back on

After seeing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey close at hand, it was especially painful for us Texans to watch Hurricane Irma lash Florida about two weeks later. The storm left more than 15 million people without power across the state, and when Texas Electric Cooperatives put out a call for help, our staff knew we wanted to send crews and equipment.

Robert Peterson, PEC director of control center and emergency preparedness, worked with TEC’s mutual assistance department to coordinate both our Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma restoration efforts. Peterson was in contact with the cooperatives in need of our help, and many of our volunteers, like PEC Journeyworker Jimmy Fermin, were excited when they got the call to pack up their gear and head to Florida.

On Monday, Sept. 11, we sent 22 crew members to Talquin Electric Cooperative (TEC) in Quincy, Florida. These employees from our Cedar Park and Marble Falls districts made a 20-hour journey to the country’s southeast coast, unsure what they’d be facing when they arrived.

Upon arrival at Talquin Electric on Sept. 13, our crew in blue were debriefed on the state of TEC’s electric lines and immediately went to work. Our crews embodied the cooperative principle of Cooperation among Cooperatives as they worked 16- to 18-hour days to repair electric poles, lines and transformers alongside crews from six other cooperatives.

Thanks to the many organizations that were there to aid TEC, our crews spent only two days restoring power in their service territory. Peterson got the call that our manpower was needed elsewhere, and our crews were immediately dispatched to assist Clay Electric Cooperative (CEC) in Palatka, Florida. When our crews arrived there on Sept. 15, about 63,000 people were without power. PEC Journeyworker Ronnie Taylor was amazed by the devastation.

“Trees had fallen through houses, there was no running water and some of these people had been without power for five to six days,” Taylor said. “There was a member that came up to us and said, ‘You’re the best thing I’ve seen since the storm hit us,’ and they just broke down crying. [The community] was just so appreciative of what we were doing for them, and it just gave us the energy to work as hard as humanly possible for them.”

Similar to the restoration efforts at TEC, our employees spent most of their time repairing storm-damaged lines and equipment. Their most tedious work by far was on a small island in Georgetown, Florida. There, all of CEC’s electric lines were offline and underwater, and there was no way to drive our vehicles to the island. With the help of a barge, ATVs and some knee-high rain boots, our lineman sloshed through water populated with snakes and alligators, got their equipment on the island and worked diligently until the lights were back on.

“I was carefully watching where I was stepping, and I felt like I was working in a jungle swamp where the state bird was the mosquito,” Taylor joked. “But in all seriousness, we were able restore power to 125 houses on that island. There were no accidents or injuries, and we all worked safely and really well together. And once we got the power back on, we had kids clapping for us and thanking us, which was an incredible feeling for us all.”

Our staff also managed two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that were invaluable to restoration efforts, especially on the island, Peterson said. The UAVs allowed us to scout out the damage and gave us insight on what supplies were needed to restore power. CEC was “really, really happy” with our equipment and our lineworkers.

“The quality of our guys really stood out,” Peterson said. “I am always impressed by their responsiveness and their desire to help others. It says a lot when you have many more volunteers than you can send. TEC and CEC were both thankful for our aid.”

After their eighth straight day on the job, our men made it safely back home to Central Texas. Fermin and Taylor reflect on a job well done and are both thankful and proud to be PEC linemen. They even admit that they’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“When you volunteer to do these kinds of things for other cooperatives, it makes you proud to be part of something bigger than PEC itself,” Fermin said. “We were able to make PEC shine out there in Florida, and I would relive the experience again if I get the chance.”