With nearly 400 poles on the ground and outages affecting more than 15% of its members, Dixie Electric Power Association knew that recovering from Easter’s tornadoes would be complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We asked our neighboring co-ops to help us, and we are using in-state contractors for line construction and right- of way,” said Randy Smith, CEO of Dixie Electric, on April 17. 

Using crews from three neighboring co-ops meant that some workers faced a two-hour drive each direction. But it also allowed mutual aid workers to begin and end their days at home to reduce the risk of coronavirus exposure. 

“This has prevented the need to bring in crews from other states and has limited the need to house linemen in close quarters,” said Smith. “We are only housing one crew at a nearby hotel.”

Five days after the Easter storms, Dixie Electric officials were telling members that restoration work affecting about 400 meters could take a few more days. The co-op wrapped up most restoration work by April 18, but permanent repairs and cleanup are continuing. 

“Several miles of our electric system were completely gone and had to be rebuilt,” said Pat McCarthy, operations manager of the Laurel, Mississippi-based distribution co-op.  “Building a mile of power line normally takes a month. We were tasked with rebuilding several miles of the system in a matter of days.” 

McCarthy, a 40-year co-op employee, surveyed some of the worst damage of his career— even worse than Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The co-op is located about 100 miles inland from the Gulf Coast. 

“Damage during Katrina was widespread across our seven-county system, and there was a lot of tornado damage, but it wasn’t to this degree,” said McCarthy. “In our area, Katrina brought windspeeds of 100 mph. This tornado’s windspeed was significantly higher at 190 mph, according to the National Weather Service.” 

Throughout the restoration work, COVID-19 concerns required adjustments and flexibility unfamiliar to many co-op veterans who’ve taken on mutual aid assignments.

“We asked the linemen to eat breakfast before they come to work. We are delivering food for lunch and the evening meal, preventing the need to feed everyone in one large room,” said Lydia Walters, Dixie Electric’s communications manager.  

“Crews from different co-ops and companies are being kept separated, so they aren’t working in the same areas,” said Walters, adding that interaction between the co-op’s crews and mutual aid workers has been minimized. “The three co-ops providing assistance have their own guidelines on how their crews practice social distancing.”

The co-op used shuttles to deliver poles, parts and hardware to some worksites, but the amount of system damage and the vast stretches of line needing to be rebuilt led to more warehouse and yard congestion than officials would have liked. 

“In a normal storm, even one where we needed to call in a couple of crews or so, this would have worked pretty well,” said Smith. “We didn’t have enough people or vehicles to deliver material to the worksites in a timely manner. The work in the field went pretty much as planned, so getting material to the worksite is probably the biggest issue we need to address.”