If, as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” then April 2011 was the cruelest of them all in the Southeast. During a four-day period, 200 tornadoes took 316 lives, destroyed thousands of homes, and left 850,000 electricity consumers in the dark.
The Southeast is Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) country, and this April, the regional utility looked back on how the historic storms affected its seven-state service area: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia.
The tornadoes knocked out 108 transmission lines, including 14 500-kV lines, and damaged 125 bulk power delivery points. TVA is the wholesale power provider for 154 local utilities in the region—49 of which are co-ops— and 75 of them experienced outages.
Amazingly, TVA, co-op, and municipal line crews restored power for 98 percent of consumers within a week, even though only 40 percent of lines had been fully repaired. “Total system restoration was completed only 65 days after one of the most damaging storms in TVA history,” a news release notes.
Consumers showed their appreciation in surveys conducted later that year: “Despite the damages across the system, our customer satisfaction actually went up in 2011,” recalls Theo Laughner, TVA’s senior program manager for power quality. “Customers understood it was an extremely unusual and challenging event, and they knew we were working as hard as we could.”
TVA then got to work on preventive measures, says Clayton Clem, vice president of transmission engineering. Wood poles were replaced with steel; early-warning systems were upgraded; emergency plans were rewritten; right-of-way vegetation management was stepped up.
This spring, as these managers were looking back at those devastating four days in 2011, lineworkers were in the midst of annual tornado drills that include practicing protective actions and evacuation procedures.