In the Wake of the 'Derecho'

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

It was like the breaching of a massive dam in the dark, while the citizenry was preparing to turn in for the night. The powerful torrent that was unleashed, though, was a wall of wind, not water.

Amply fed by intense heat, smothering humidity and a high-pressure system, this superstorm — this “derecho” — became the airborne equivalent of class 6 whitewater, rushing, surging, tearing eastward, some 600 miles in 10 hours, leaving uprooted trees, flattened street signs, and tangled power lines in a mammoth wake that stretched from the heartland of the Midwest to the shoreline of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

More than 150,000 electric cooperative customer-owners in the Old Dominion lost electric service as Friday evening, June 29, crossed over into Saturday morning, June 30. Many of us learned a new word as we were reminded once again that nature’s fury has many forms and faces, in every season. This storm was called a “derecho” (Spanish for “straight”), a fast-moving, widespread straight-line windstorm accompanied by thunderstorms. Across Virginia, the derecho knocked out electric service to more than 1.2 million people. Gov. Bob McDonnell noted that it was the largest non-hurricane electric-service outage in Virginia’s history.

And like wavelets radiating from the derecho’s wake, additional intense storms fanned across parts of the landscape over the next week, at times causing more power outages. Rarely are we reminded so powerfully of our interdependence with fellow humans as when the lights go out.

Thankfully, while the storm’s name was new to many, the damage it caused has been seen before by the utility equivalent of the cavalry: the line crew members. As soon as the storm hit, staff at Virginia’s 13 locally owned electric cooperatives quickly assessed the magnitude of the damage, and deployed line crews to begin the painstaking process of repairing — and frequently rebuilding — miles and miles of electric lines.

To fortify the efforts of local crews, as soon as the storm passed through, Virginia cooperatives immediately contacted unaffected cooperatives in nearby states, to secure additional line crews and equipment.

On that Saturday morning, June 30, as Virginia cooperative linemen and support staff were underway with a grueling schedule of around-the-clock work to locate and repair the derecho’s damage, on the way to help them were experienced line workers from sister cooperatives in North and South Carolina ... Georgia ... Tennessee ... and Mississippi, in many cases tripling the number of workers and available equipment.

“One of the great strengths of the electric cooperative system is the mutual assistance given to one another when needed,” said Ron Campbell, vice president of safety for the regional association that provides a variety of services to electric cooperatives in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Campbell added that, as Virginia cooperatives completed restoration work on their own systems, they would then contact him and his staff to offer their crews to assist other Virginia co-ops.

Ultimately, linemen from the five states listed above were joined by colleagues from four other states — Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Pennsylvania — to create an additional army of outside expertise whose ranks totaled more than 300 linemen and over 150 specialized vehicles and equipment, from digger-derricks to bucket trucks to pole trailers.

These linemen, of course, were not just working long hours in difficult surroundings, fighting temperatures that topped 100 degrees each day, but were also dealing with the physical duress of heavy tool belts,  and safety helmets, clothing and gloves that would leave most of us in a heap. Thankfully, those few who are able to measure up to the difficult demands of line work and carry out its crucial tasks are highly skilled, highly trained, and intensely dedicated. “Given the long hours worked by all of these crews, I’m pleased that we received no reports of any serious injuries during the intensive service restoration period,” Campbell pointed out. 

As always, cooperative customer-owners were almost without exception patient, gracious and appreciative of the extraordinary efforts of the line crew members. As cooperative linemen carried out their restoration work, many received and gratefully accepted words of praise, and cups of water, from customer-owners. And in a sign of these connected times, many cooperative customer-owners posted notes of encouragement and thanks on co-op Facebook pages, buoying the spirits of numerous linemen at the end of each long day.

The hand of mankind and the unstoppable advance of nature will quickly fix or smooth over the destruction done to the landscape by the derecho. Living on in its receding wake, though, will be the sense of community that was invoked and displayed by cooperative customer-owners and employees during those difficult days. 


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