By: Ama​nda Busby, CCC, Public and Member Relations Coordinator at GreyStone Power

When the biggest storm of the year hits your area, what do you? What if it’s not just an ordinary summer storm, but a Category 4 hurricane with ultimate destruction in its wake? What if you are a small cooperative with only 49 employees and just over 11,000 electric meters scattered throughout five different parishes? What if 100 percent of the system is down–and not just power lost, but 2,000 distribution poles, 2,000 transmission poles and 13 of your 18 substations are destroyed?

If you immediately went to panic mode, you may not be alone! For the team at Jeff Davis Electric Cooperative (JDEC) in Jennings, Lousiana, they didn’t have time to panic. On Aug. 27, 2020, it was time to enact their Emergency Response Plan (ERP). Thankfully, General Manager Michael Heinen had been through this before at JDEC when Hurricane Rita hit in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, so he knew how to lead his team.

Rebuilding miles upon miles of distribution and transmission lines is not an easy feat. JDEC needed to call on the co-op calvary, to which nearly 700 answered the call. With the ERP in place, tent city was built.

Unlike Hurricane Rita’s relief efforts where workers were scattered all over the place, JDEC built a tent city to accommodate the hundreds of staff, contractors, neighboring co-ops and volunteers that were part of the relief efforts. These included tents for food preparation, dining halls, showers and sleeping tents. But, thanks to COVID-19, additional tents had to be set up in order to accommodate social distancing, special air filters were placed on the tent ventilation systems, meals were prepackaged and cleaning crews had to work harder cleaning and sanitizing the areas.

Tent city was just a portion of the ERP enacted for JDEC. With devastation of this magnitude, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) would be on hand as well. One very important take away from Hurricane Rita was the importance of having a consultant on hand during the beginning of the relief effort to manage the paperwork and assist in fulfilling the requirements needed for FEMA assistance.

Additionally, the JDEC staff found it useful to have good old-fashioned maps and whiteboards on hand to organize the rebuilding process. At a time when many co-ops have automated meters and a state-of-the-art SCADA center, JDEC didn’t miss a beat when they had to map out their crew assignments and rebuilding efforts. This provided a nugget for the future–pen and paper always provide a great backup plan.

From a communications standpoint, JDEC’s service area had been hit hard and there was a need to communicate to members. Without a communicator on staff at JDEC, the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives (ALEC) stepped in to help while also assisting other Louisiana cooperatives. By providing a communicator onsite in Tent City, JDEC now had a voice. Addie Armato, director of member engagement, has used her expertise to communicate with members, media and neighboring co-ops about relief efforts and stats within the JDEC service area. She has witnessed the community come together like never before and has had the opportunity to share the JDEC story.

“We quickly learned that our voice could not be heard in the mainstream media. In news story after news story, it was assumed that Entergy Louisiana, LLC powered everyone and that was the only voice being heard. Social media became our best outlet,” explains Armato. “If members weren’t on Facebook, they quickly learned that was the best source for updates,” she adds. As a result, JDEC had the opportunity to see the community come together unlike they had before.

There are stories upon stories of line crews being greeted by members with drinks, boxed lunches and even freshly baked cookies. A local church set up camp in a nearby auction house and brought in a chef from New Orleans to cook meals every day for four weeks for the community.

For Addie, there’s another important take-away from this experience. “As an employee of the statewide, we see the benefit in assisting the smaller co-ops with communication efforts during disasters. We would like to implement a new plan to assist in managing the social media pages during disasters. This will allow their communicators, if the co-op has any, to focus on restoration efforts and answer direct questions from members. Our team at the statewide can post safety tips, restoration process information, storm tips, etc. to help educate the members,” shares Armato.

The relief efforts are still ongoing at JDEC. In the wake of Hurricane Laura, closely followed by Tropical Storm Beta, only 52 percent of the membership had been restored when this article was first written. Neighboring co-op crews and contractors were still calling Tent City home, even though they had to evacuate during Beta. Since that time, Hurricane Delta made landfall as a Category 2 storm and caused even more destruction for JDEC. This time around, 61 percent of the distribution line system was damaged, as well as two additional substations and one additional switching station. Thankfully, the transmission lines did not receive further damage. With that behind them, now JDEC braces for Hurricane Zeta and the unknowns it will bring.

It’s hard to fathom how one little area can get hit so hard, so often and still have such a fighting spirit. As we look at the devastation caused by these storms and the reaction of the community, one thing really stands out–the cooperative difference. The difference in how JDEC and neighboring crews had the drive and desire to help members; the way the co-op calvary came together, time and time again, leaving their families in order to help the little co-op in Jennings, Louisiana, rebuild their system; and the way the community came together to help and support each other during these unthinkable times.

The cooperative mindset is unique and special. We believe in the seven Cooperative Principles and live them out through our jobs. Cooperation among cooperatives has been demonstrated for all to see in the little town of Jennings, and it will be seen again during the next disaster, or in the calm of the season when simple resources are “admired and acquired.” No matter the occasion, we belong to the cooperative family, and that’s a great place to be. ​

Guiding Principle: Cooperation Among​ Cooperatives

Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

Click here to view a summary of the damage assessment​