When Hurricane Florence crossed the North Carolina coast in August 2018 and electric cooperatives called in mutual aid crews to help restore power, they were hampered by a shortage of hotel rooms and widespread flooding.

The hurricane “turned parts of our territory into islands that could hardly be reached,” said Jeremy Dewberry, marketing and economic development supervisor for Four County Electric Membership Corp

The Burgaw-based distribution co-op spent eight days working through outages affecting 95% of its 32,000 meters, with crews and equipment often facing long detours to reach sodden areas. Delivering meals to crews in the field took hours, and reaching overnight lodging at distant hotels lengthened workdays for bone-tired technicians. 

“Afterward, our managers began talking about finding better ways to deal with large-scale mutual aid situations,” said Greg Sager, the co-op’s vice president of member services. “There aren’t a lot of hotel rooms in the area under normal conditions, and competing with displaced members for space while restoration work is underway was always a problem.”

Since 2016, the co-op has experienced five major storms that led to lengthy restoration work across our territory, “so we really needed to find a better way,” recalled Sager. “When COVID-19 came along, we had to add social distancing and crew sequestration into our plans, so a dispersal strategy was developed and it worked quite well last year following Hurricane Isaias.” 

Four County EMC found five locations across its service territory with lodging, food preparation and parking space for visiting crews and struck deals with operators to ensure that those facilities would be available when needed. 

“We’re looking at the possibilities of improving those facilities with upgrades like onsite generators or underground utility service to reduce the potential of problems when storms occur,” said Sager. “Those improvements will allow us to be more effective when we need to restore power.”

Janet Smith, Four County EMC’s communications specialist, said the co-op has two church-run facilities, camp centers run by the FFA and the YMCA, and a hunting preserve. 

“The locations we found are large enough and capable of supplying lodging, meals, laundry and truck space for crews,” said Smith, who noted that all of the institutions are also actively and regularly involved in supporting regional community interests. “These organizations are happy to assist Four County and the community in restoration efforts.”

With the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season on the horizon, the co-op is busy improving its system.  

Four County EMC retirees have been recruited to work as onsite coordinators at the lodging facilities, and orientation videos have been prepared to give visiting crews and contractors an idea of what to expect. 

“They’ll know what amenities are available, including air conditioning and recreational facilities they can use after hours,” said Smith. “Our safety director has also recorded his briefing, so crews and contractors know what to expect before they arrive.” 

Co-op officials are confident their new system can effectively accommodate at least 350 visiting personnel without displacing local residents involved in post-storm recovery, said Mitch Keel, the co-op’s CEO. “With the unpredictability of Mother Nature, it's crucial that we continuously improve our emergency plans to ensure that power is restored to our members as quickly and safely as possible.”