Whether from climate change, natural cycles or other causes, most agree that the United States is experiencing more frequent and severe weather that can leave entire regions struggling to recover. Catastrophic hurricanes, tornadoes, powerful Nor’easters, flash flooding, and micro-storms are causing greater devastation. Alongside often-relocated citizens and the homes they left behind, infrastructure like our transportation network and power grid also bear the brunt of the storms and face significant and costly recovery challenges. Throughout the country, KCI helps our clients by leveraging our incredible team, their expertise and technical leadership to prepare for, assess, and efficiently and effectively repair damage caused by natural disasters.
Whenever possible, engineers, inspectors, scientists and technicians help our clients prepare for the potential effects caused by powerful storms. This can include developing assessment plans, organizing materials and contract staff, safely securing construction sites, and coordinating placement of personnel ready to respond as soon as feasible.
KCI’s Power Practice routinely responds en masse to support utility companies before, during and after major hurricane and snow events. Teams of more than 100 from across the country are mobilized to the area and pre-staged nearby. Equipment, vehicles, safety gear and contact information of all participants are organized well ahead of deployment. Team leaders and backups are assigned in case of last-minute changes.
To ensure employees are ready when needed, the firm conducts a series of storm duty training to give participants an idea of expected conditions, safety concerns, and how to plan accordingly. Last year, more than 66 participants completed the class, not including a session conducted specifically for Georgia Department of Transportation personnel.
The vast majority of KCI’s natural disaster response activities focus on the power grid or transportation network. Once a storm has passed, teams quickly fan out to support our clients in evaluating the extent of damage.
Both reactive and proactive response is required to restore power. During the first few days following a major storm, a utility company will receive calls and requests through their outage management system. In response, they often initially assign our team a series of tickets to investigate. With an address and short description, assessors drive to the location to identify the cause of the outage, such as fallen tree limbs, downed power lines, broken poles, and blown fuses. Crews that find energized lines remain onsite to protect the public until the circuit is de-energized.
As tickets are being addressed and closed, line crews will also be utilized to restore power along main feeders to highly sensitive circuits, such as those that feed hospitals, emergency facilities and public infrastructure including water pumping stations, water treatment plants, communications towers, etc. Damage assessors work in front of crews to assist in making them as efficient as possible. Teams of two assess damage from the main feeder to the individual meters in order to report back on the type of resources (tree crews, light or heavy construction crews) and a list of materials needed to restore power.
Whether responding to a ticket or evaluating damage along a feeder, response personnel are keenly aware of the dangers. The focus is safety for the client’s customers and the crews,” said Power Vice President Rob Macoy.
After Hurricane Matthew lashed North Carolina in 2016 and flooded downtown Lumberton, KCI CEI crews drove through the area to document damage but were quickly blocked by the overwhelming number of roadways that were too dangerous to cross.
Calls came in reporting complete washouts, power lines down in standing water, houses underwater and extreme flooding. The slow pace of information gathering was impacted by the labor-intensive navigation of roads—a trip that normally took five minutes was taking up to six hours.
Carl AndersonProject Manager
Assessments by the inspectors continued for several weeks after the flooding subsided. In some cases, temporary repairs helped reestablish access as soon as possible until permanent repairs could be completed. The team then analyzed budgets and schedules for each site. KCI worked with resident engineers to split the assignments among local contractors. Inspectors traveled to each site to determine estimated quantities and time schedules, and negotiate unit prices. Contracts were drafted, even written on the hood of a truck as necessary, so that contractors could get to work in an emergency response capacity.
No matter the level of preparation or quick assessment, recovery from a natural disaster is often lengthy, costly and causes additional suffering to those in the area.
As utility crews restore power, KCI teams re-inspect feeders to ensure all repairs are completed. For areas that experienced major damage like Florida’s Mexico Beach during Hurricane Michael, teams had to remap the entire system. The damage was so extensive and widespread that instead of repairs, crews had to rebuild the entire local grid. KCI utility personnel followed three new feeders to identify and tag each pole and create a GIS map accurately documenting the overhead and secondary infrastructure associated with each one. In total, more than 1,800 poles were inventoried and mapped in just that area alone.
On the Road to Recovery
While utility companies can get to work almost immediately, restoration of transportation infrastructure is generally a long and complex process requiring engineering plan development and longer construction schedules. When major roads and bridges are washed out, they often can’t simply be rebuilt using the original plans. Even when repairs can mimic pre-storm conditions, construction generally requires coordination of multiple contractors for grading, structures and utilities.
When a powerful train of slow-moving storm cells dumped six inches of rain in just two hours on the historic mill town of Ellicott City, Maryland, the subsequent deluge created a flash flood that rushed down the steep terrain and roadways, deposited more than 2,000 tons of debris, ripped away sidewalks and paving, displaced more than 100 downtown businesses, and left 11 buildings beyond repair. Within hours, KCI partnered with the county department of public works to coordinate services, interface with agencies, document progress, and schedule repairs to maximize effectiveness and efficiency for this around-the-clock initiative. Engineers also provided structural analysis and peer review of flood studies as part of long-term repairs. Two years later, before every aspect of the town was fully recovered, a second set of storms recreated the flooding and the same KCI team jumped in to assist the county once again.
Challenge and Reward
No matter the kind of storm, geographic region, or type of infrastructure, each situation is different and unique. Challenges can vary greatly, ranging from the physical—such as weather, bugs, proximity—to the emotional, including the toll of touring devastated areas and working with traumatized citizens day after day.
PROXIMITY – Respondents willingly face challenging work and living conditions sometimes in order to restore services and infrastructure for the local community. Utility companies do everything possible to support crews. Staging areas offer respite, food, and showers. Following Hurricane Irma, more than 2,000 people came from outside resources. Teams worked 16-hour days for 18 days straight. Some had to travel more than two hours from the staging area to begin assessments. “You’re literally driving and living with the same person, so there is zero privacy,” said Vice President Rob Macoy. “You’re working together for more than half the day and then doubling up in a hotel room afterwards if you even have a hotel room.” Although it’s critical to get some downtime between shifts, respondents are prepared to do what is necessary to serve their clients and the public.
ACCESSIBILITY – Accessing the damaged areas poses its own challenges, from safety concerns to irate residents. Crews have to traverse roadways that could be covered in ice and snow or have been scoured out by flooding. Some areas are completely inaccessible. For instance, it took weeks to safely get to the devastated Mexico Beach area after Hurricane Michael.
OUTREACH – Once onsite, teams understand that residents and the general public can be unpredictable. In many cases, individuals have gone without power for days or weeks. Employees that work emergency response often play witness to unexpected and extreme devastation and are cognizant of those who are taking the early steps toward recovery, even if that is simply cleaning up debris or trying to find a lost pet.
REWARD – Despite the challenges, KCI’s emergency response personnel are overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to serve the community and support areas in need.
It’s not always easy, but when we look back, it’s rewarding. Folks really come together in those times and appreciate what we’re doing for them.
Robert C. MacoyVice President, Regional Practice Leader
As storms continue to rage across the U.S., KCI is geared up and trained for the next disaster, ready to help areas recover as quickly and as safely as possible.