SAN ANTONIO, Texas—As electric cooperatives face hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other natural disasters, there are ways to prepare more effectively, co-op leaders said at PowerXchange.

Co-ops are accustomed to working with one another to provide mutual assistance after major disasters, but it’s also important to have strong connections with local and state emergency response officials, co-op leaders advised.

Peggy Dantzler, vice president of loss control and training at the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, serves as the co-ops’ representative at the state emergency operations center during hurricanes and other disasters.

“It has been a gamechanger for us to be part of that operation for the past 10 years,” she said during a March 5 breakout session on disaster preparedness that was moderated by Martha Duggan, NRECA senior director of regulatory affairs.

“One of the crucial things they do is coordinate fuel availability during a disaster,” Dantzler said. “That means the center helps co-ops get fuel to lineworkers to do their jobs to restore power.”

It’s also important to understand state laws to help smooth the way for lineworkers from other co-ops to be able to provide mutual aid, said Jason Caudle, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Tarheel Electric Membership Association in North Carolina, which supplies the materials needed to operate and maintain electric systems.

For example, Caudle said, North Carolina requires special travel waivers to allow co-op crews to access roads that are closed to the public during a disaster. Without waivers, lineworkers trying to offer assistance may be barred from coming into an affected county, he said.

“The requirements vary from state to state, but you need to ensure they have the proper documentation when they arrive,” Caudle said.

He also recommended that co-ops try to keep emergency supplies stockpiled as much as possible so they’ll be available during a disaster.

“We increased our storm stock after COVID delays,” Caudle said. “We’ve kept elevated levels of supplies, although the supply chain does seem to be getting better.”

Debi Wilson, general manager of Lane Electric Cooperative in Eugene, Oregon, has dealt with devastating wildfires in recent years that have created unique planning challenges.

When lineworkers streamed in from other co-ops to help restore power, Lane Electric’s staff prepared meals for the crews because the fires had forced local restaurants to close, she said.

Fortunately, hotels remained open, but that’s not always the case during disasters, with co-ops sometimes having to erect tent cities to house crews from other areas.

Wilson also had to make tough decisions about when to turn off power to prevent sparking another fire during dangerous weather conditions.

“We kept power on in the city center for first-responders and for the water supply,” she said. “We had to have good communication with emergency management agencies to help make those decisions.”