Beneath the Rubble

Dec. 1, 2005
Communication Power One of the biggest casualties of Hurricane Katrina was the electrical system all over the Gulf Coast where millions of people lost

Communication Power

One of the biggest casualties of Hurricane Katrina was the electrical system all over the Gulf Coast where millions of people lost power to the storm.

The initial crews that came into the region to restore power faced daunting obstacles, not the least being travel in a region of closed and flooded roads, and roads still open but often covered by downed electric lines, high water, trees, mud, cars, boats, rubble from homes and buildings and more. Communication was virtually impossible because of damage to telephone lines and cellular telephone towers.

However, to the Southside Electric Cooperative, a Crewe, Va.-based power company that worked to restore service to about 52,000 meters in six counties in Mississippi and two in Alabama, the task of restoring electric power over a large area was facilitated by the use of Qualcomm's OmniTRACS wireless communication system, which enabled SEC's mobile power restoration teams to communicate with one another and with headquarters at all times. SEC sent crews of six to eight people to the field at a time, with teams rotating every couple of weeks. Southside is one of thousands of electrical cooperatives nationwide, many of which sent teams of linemen with bucket trucks, earthmoving equipment, and service trucks to the area to help restore power.

“OmniTRACS allowed us to physically track our vehicles so we knew exactly where they were located at all times,” says Frank Harris, manager of public and member relations for SEC. “It also allowed us to transmit data and information back and forth between the truck and our headquarters and from truck to truck.”

In the days immediately following the hurricane, power-restoration crews were unable to communicate with headquarters or family members through cell phones, but could transmit messages through their OmniTRACS systems. The ability to send messages to family members was especially important during the initial uncertain days following Hurricane Katrina, an immediacy that was repeated following Hurricane Rita a short time later.

According to Harris, learning to use the equipment was not difficult for the cooperative's staff, with a couple days of in-house training sufficient to make even the less computer-literate personnel capable of operating the system in the field.

The unit communicated the daily schedule of work orders to the crews, who were able to log in the time and work completed immediately, thus apprising headquarters of their progress as well as eliminating the need to fill out reports upon return to the office. OmniTRACS facilitated such mundane concerns as the filling out of time sheets, but more importantly enabled communication over important issues such as finding out when roads were closed or too dangerous to traverse. The OmniTRACS system also has an emergency alarm system activated on a 24/7 basis.

A team of fire department volunteers from Pelzer, S.C., also used the OmniTRACS system to help its volunteers. The group gathered donations of food, supplies, generators, baby supplies, medical supplies and other needed items and brought tractor trailers full of these items to Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Miss., which were heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. After bringing in supplies, the volunteer firemen relieved local firemen, allowing them time to be with their families and rest after working around the clock for days. The group set up distribution sites in the area and worked with local fire departments and relief staff to distribute supplies.

“We used the Qualcomm system primarily to communicate back and forth with our home terminals to get the big trucks in and make arrangements for other people to come,” says Tare Kennedy of Owen-Kennedy Specialized Transportation, which organized the effort. “We relayed messages to local officials, to some of the Mississippi emergency management staff, and to people who weren't able to get in touch with loved ones and let them know they were OK. We also used the system to get us where we needed to go by utilizing the global positioning and mapping systems. A lot of mailboxes and street signs were gone, so OmniTRACS enabled us to actually find addresses and be able to see whether a house was still standing, to find out if people were well, communicate the condition of the property and if we were able to locate anybody.”

With the lack of available fuel, many people in the area were unable to leave. Millions lacked any communication with the outside world and the fire team's use of OmniTRACS enabled many to establish contact with family members as well as to facilitate relief efforts.

Pumping New Orleans Dry

Pumping out the city of New Orleans was a gargantuan task, that involved pumping millions of gallons of contaminated water out of the city's streets. For leading pump companies such as Bridgeport, N.J.-based Godwin Pumps and Port Orange, Fla.-based Thompson Pump, it was just part of doing business.

“We've always done this,” says Godwin national sales manager Joe Abbott. “It's just part of the business. We know that when it's hurricane season in the Gulf that we've got to bulk up the inventory, particularly in our Houston and Tampa branches. It's the nature of the beast.” And although Bridgeport, N.J.-based Godwin has hurricane contracts with many customers along the Gulf Coast, positioning pumping equipment on some sites from June through November, nothing could have prepared them for the magnitude of what they faced when the levees broke, flooding New Orleans.

Still Godwin's staff was preparing even before the hurricane hit. “From the close of business Friday [before the storm hit] through Monday, we put 78 machines on the road heading into Louisiana,” says Abbott. “And it was the whole gamut: generators, light towers and pumps. And every call was ‘How fast can you get them here?’”

For pump rental specialists, it's more than just providing equipment. “We've got about five people staffed in our Baton Rouge office and we brought pumps down and set up a camper in New Orleans and kept guys on site,” says Johnny Britt, Jackson, Miss.-based Gulf Coast regional manager for Thompson Pump. “The pumps ran for about three weeks.”

For pump specialists working in or near contaminated water, tetanus, and hepatitis A&B shots were required by federal authorities.

Providing equipment in the immediate aftermath also involved instructing customers who were often inexperienced in operating equipment.

“We dealt with a lot of National Guardsman who have office jobs and don't know what a light tower is,” says Abbott. “Some of our guys were basically working for contractors as teachers. Our salesman's only problem was getting there, so the Guard sent a Humvee for him so he could teach them how to run the light towers. We helped them get the pumps running. We took 16 light towers over to help them re-start the airport.”