Hurricane Florence Journal: Reports from the field

Hurricane Florence Journal: Reports from the field

Across the Carolinas, a resilient people created community in the face of adversity

After a devastating hurricane, restoring power is more than getting the lights back on – it helps begin the process of restoring lives.

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Duke Energy’s corporate communications teammates were embedded with line crews along the Carolinas coast after Hurricane Florence to help provide information to customers and to tell the stories of the people coping with the aftermath. They found inspirational stories of volunteers from around the country, local public servants and residents all pulling together. And they told the story of crews working to turn the lights back on for 1.8 million customers.

This is their final report from the field:

Sept.21 

Jeannine Bowers is helping rebuild Lumberton

Grace Rountree, @DE_GraceR

Jeannine Bowers told me it’s been a humbling experience to be in Lumberton, N.C., seeing firsthand the devastation people are experiencing. Still recovering from Hurricane Matthew, which crippled communities in 2016, many people have lost way more than electricity and are still trying to return to normalcy.

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Jeannine Bowers, a Duke Energy construction and maintenance supervisor.

Bowers, Duke Energy’s construction and maintenance supervisor in the Palmetto region of South Carolina, crossed the border Wednesday to Lumberton in Robeson County with more than 750 workers to help restore power. Using drones, boats and track equipment, crews are working to safely scout areas and reach inaccessible homes and electric infrastructure.

Regardless of the circumstances, Bowers said, the people of Lumberton have been accommodating and the police have been wonderful to work with, helping crews maneuver through road closures and detours.

While progress has been made, there is still much to do. And our crews will not rest until all customers who can receive power are restored.

Over the past week, I have had the opportunity to travel to towns in North Carolina I have never been before. My favorite part has been the people. The teamwork and collaboration I’ve witnessed is inspiring, and it’s refreshing to meet so many who are passionate to serve their neighbors. I’m humbled, myself, for the experience to witness such unity and I hope others can say the same.

New groundman from Cincinnati learns how it’s done

Jeff Brooks, @DE_JeffB

Duke Energy crews from Ohio were lined up on Gordon Road in Wilmington today, working on power lines that were mangled and twisted among broken tree limbs and debris. 

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Wayne Hambrick

I spoke with Wayne Hambrick, a groundman from Cincinnati, as he helped his team untangle and restring the line. This is the first major storm Hambrick has worked since he joined the company about four months ago. He’s been in Wilmington for almost two weeks and will likely be here several more days as the number of outages in New Hanover County dwindle. 

He’s moved from staging sites where thousands of workers sleep in trailers to hotels. He’s worked on the side of busy streets and flooded creeks to get the power back on. He’s been here long enough that he’s running low on clean laundry, but he said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

Hambrick, a former Marine, said he’s found a home with his crew. The camaraderie and unity of his team, he said, is a familiar feeling. 

“Storm mode brings us together,” he said, “and it’s helping me learn the ropes.”

Hambrick celebrated his 34th birthday away from home on Sept. 15 — two days after my birthday. I’ve worked every severe storm to provide information to customers since I started working at Duke Energy. With a birthday and anniversary (Happy 20th, Julie!) during the height of hurricane season, I’ve missed a lot of events, but, like Hambrick, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

It’s an honor to work alongside crews, tell their stories, and hopefully keep our customers more informed during power outages. Although we’re closing out this journal, I’ll be in Wilmington until the job is done, and you can follow my updates on Twitter. 

The Renningers stuck it out in Smyrna, NC

Ana Gibbs, @DE_AnaGibbs

Ginger Renninger and her husband didn’t leave their home in the coastal village of Smyrna, N.C., when Hurricane Florence was threatening despite the pleas of daughter Jen Langdo.

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Ginger Renninger and daughter Jen Langdo.

Langdo, who lives in Wisconsin, begged her mom and dad to leave. “I literally envisioned the scene from the ‘Titanic,’ where they would be hanging on to each other for dear lives.”

Florence started knocking on the door of that century-old home late at night. The power went out and the wind wouldn’t stop blowing. Renninger lives near a lake that’s about a half-mile from her property. The storm surge came up the entire half mile and several yards past her house.

The rising waters devastated everything that stood in her back yard. “The dock is gone, the gas tank is gone, and the building is moved,” she said. “And then we just hugged it out together. I told the children, if we stay, we’ll be together. If we go, we’ll be together. We made it.”

Her old home stood strong, but most of her back yard, sheds, work areas – even the washer and dryer – are gone.

A fallen power line stretched across the front yard this morning, but a half-dozen bucket trucks arrived to start the process of rebuilding the power grid that serves this town. And with that, and the help of friends and family, the Renningers and neighbors rebuild their lives as 

What I learned from Hurricane Florence

Chris Rimel, @ChrisRimel

As I pack up my go-bag and head back home in Upstate South Carolina, I think about this week-long experience in the hardest-hit areas of North Carolina – what I liked best, what I learned and how my life has changed.

I’m in awe of our line crews. They left their families in the same condition as our customers – in the dark without power. They, too, experienced the devastation not just at work but also at home, but you’d never know it.

Their commitment to getting the power back on and helping communities return to normalcy is something to revere.

My favorite part was eating dinner with line crews at the base camp in Newport. It reminded me of being in the Army; the camaraderie is unmistakable, and the friendships are instant.

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People from all over the country came together as a community to help after Hurricane Florence.

Our customers are resilient. Despite the inconvenience and frustration of losing power for an extended time, they bestowed kindnesses. When my glasses broke, I bought a new pair at a store in Jacksonville. Instead of giving me an earful, which I expected, the store clerk and the customer behind me shook my hand and thanked me for our service.

Technology allowed me to keep tabs on my family and hear about my kids’ soccer and softball games, even when I was in the thick of the action. On those restless nights – when you’re so tired you can’t sleep – I’d think about a drawing from my daughter. It’s funny how a simple piece of paper with a “Dad, I love you” message can sustain you.

If something good can come from a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence, it’s the goodwill, forever friendships and everlasting bonds that connect those who experience and survive the crisis firsthand. We remember what’s important, find strength in community and overcome. 

Sept. 20

Lineman will reunite with his family after 9 days apart

Jeff Brooks, @DE_JeffB

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Taylor Brown with his wife, Meredith, and daughters, Kinley, 4, and Kendall, 1.

When Duke Energy lineman Taylor Brown goes home this evening, his wife and two daughters will be waiting for him for the first time in nine days after they evacuated their home for Hurricane Florence. 

Brown, who lives in Wilmington, stayed to help with restoration efforts, but he didn’t have to weather the storm alone. Seven of his co-workers stayed at Brown’s house after their families left. 

Brown lives closer to the area where their team would be working after the storm, so it was easier for them to avoid flooding. 

“We’re like family,” Brown said, “and we thought this was a good enough reason to get together.” 

He and his teammates have been working 16-hour days since the hurricane passed. They serve the Wrightsville Beach area and early in the week focused on repairs to substations that would bring on the most number of customers. As the week goes on, most of their work is on neighborhood streets restoring power to several homes at a time. 

“Those lines to the homes have been destroyed,” he said. “We’re picking away at them and trying to get the lights on.”

Brown will likely get home late tonight. I asked him if his daughters were excited to have him home.  

The answer: “Not as excited as their daddy is to see them.”

Visiting responders come together in little Otway, N.C.

Ana Gibbs, @DE_AnaGibbs

In Beaufort, N.C., Brian Davis is a lieutenant at the fire department. Down the road in the coastal community of Otway, he’s known as the volunteer fire chief. But to Duke Energy linemen and his community, he’s a hero.

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Brian Davis

The Otway Volunteer Fire Department – like much of the surrounding communities – does not have power. The station has been on a generator since Sept. 13. Their EMS building roof collapsed during Hurricane Florence and the building is uninhabitable.

So Wednesday, when more than 100 bucket trucks paraded into these coastal fishing towns along U.S. 70, pretty much everyone noticed.

And in typical Southern fashion, the priority wasn’t how fast the power crews can get the lights on. It was, come get dinner, across the way at the East Carteret High School staging site.

While crews were overwhelmed by the kindness, Davis sees it a different way.

“You are serving our community, like we are. You are away from your family, just like we are. While you are here, you are a part of our community.”

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The restoration army moves on its stomach. Firefighters from Mississippi and Louisiana fed lineworkers.

The meal was cooked by Mississippi and Louisiana firefighters who brought their own food, generator and supplies to share meals with firefighters, linemen and anyone else in need in this community.

They’ve been offering the town free meals every day since they set up shop.

The utility crews raved about dinner: ribs, corn and green beans. The moments shared were unforgettable.

Davis wanted to take zero credit and emphasized the efforts of his regular volunteer staff and visiting Hurricane Florence volunteers who are helping this community.

“Without them this wouldn't have happened.”

The Mother Theresa of Leland, NC, ‘can’t sit still’

Grace Rountree, @DE_GraceR

The crews staged in Dunn, N.C., call her “Mother Theresa.” Her name is Theresa Kelley from Leland, N.C., and this isn’t the first time she has supported Duke Energy line crews and personnel during a major storm.

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Theresa Kelley of Leland, N.C.

“It’s just what I do. I can’t sit still,” said Kelley. When she’s not making sure every worker has the proper safety gear on, she’s making sure they stay hydrated and are well fed. Kelley said she will do “any and everything” to ensure the comfort of the troops, more than 280 workers, who have lived at this site for nine days.

She received a call that her home was being looted during Hurricane Florence, but she wanted to stay with the crews. She also has given up a hotel room because she wants linemen to have that space. Instead, she chooses to sleep in her truck.

The logistics that go into each staging site is fascinating. Workers sleep on cots in a building that was once a restaurant and beds of tractor trailers (showers and bathroom quarters there too), about 30 people prepare 1,500 meals a day for crews onsite and for those working out in the field. There is a linen service that makes sure crews can come “home” to clean sheets, towels and clothing.

The outpouring of support from Dunn has been appreciated, and Duke Energy workers tell me how nice it feels to be recognized. The Girl Scouts delivered cookies and families have contributed food and other items.

Many people who help keep crews comfortable have worked through Hurricanes Katrina, Irma and Matthew. Many work for Recovery Logistics, a company based in Apex, N.C.

“These people are my family now,” said Travis Payne, a Duke Energy employee based in Raleigh who works on site. “They care about my well-being.”

Interstate 40 reopens and evacuees return home

Chris Rimel, @ChrisRimel

The good news: Interstate 40 reopened today, reconnecting the coast to the rest of North Carolina. The bad news: N.C. 24 from I-40 to the coast is gridlocked, and many of Duke Energy’s line crews are stuck in it for as far as the eye can see.

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Along the road, I see evacuees and their belongings.

Every fifth car has stuffed teddy bears, pink elephants and other animals on the dash, in the backseat, smashed against a window or even riding shotgun. I can relate. My two kids have rooms full of stuffed animals.  

If you had to evacuate your home, what would you take with you? One family took their four or five exotic birds. They’re in a giant cage in the back of a pickup truck and must not mind the warm breeze blowing through their feathers.

I am in Beulaville off NC 24 with a Fox News production team. Three bucket trucks with seven Duke Energy crew members from Ohio are working to replace a power pole submerged in muck. They can’t get it and need a tracked vehicle. Instead, they isolate a circuit and restore power to 25 customers.

Though the company has restored 1.6 million of 1.7 million outages, some of the most challenging and time-consuming work remains in the days ahead.  

Sept. 19

 

I’m helping keep drones and drone pilots safe as they help restore power

Dana Nigro, @Dknigro

Last week, I was working on Duke Energy's social media team. This week, I'm a visual observer for one of the almost 40 unmanned aerial system (UAS) teams the company is using to help restore power after Hurricane Florence.

Better known as drones, UAS can go where people can't, such as closed roads, areas flooded or hidden by fallen trees and poles. A challenging workplace to say the least.

On Towles Road in Wilmington, the crews replaced power poles and strung new lines for the neighborhood. My job was to help keep the drone pilot and the drone safe. The past few days I’ve been working with Bryan Williams and Jordan Cornell, among others.

While pilot Isaac Medford was concentrating on flying the drone, I helped him by watching out for hazards in the sky such as birds and trees. And on the ground, I also watched out for hazards – I made sure he didn’t bump into anything, fall into a hole or get distracted.

This is Duke Energy’s largest drone operation since the company started using the devices in 2015. The teams consist of Duke Energy UAS employees, and workers from Florida Power and Light, Southern Company and others. Here’s some footage we shot today in Wilmington.

 

Weathering many storms

Ana Gibbs, @DE_AnaGibbs

Matt Thomas headed out from the St. Petersburg operations center a week ago today, headed to restore power in South Carolina after Hurricane Florence blew through. Matt has worked 31 years with Duke Energy. He started as a laborer - a hand digger – literally digging trenches. Throughout his career, he has been a ground man, apprentice, lineman, and most recently a project construction supervisor.

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In three decades, Matt has responded to dozens of hurricane restorations including Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. He is in charge of 24 crews - 125 utility workers from across the country who came together to restore power to customers in in the Carolinas.

“Every hurricane is different,” Matt said. “The greatest challenge with Hurricane Florence is the flooding, where usually it’s the wind. The flooding makes it difficult to reach our poles.”

Despite the challenges, he really likes this type of work.

“I enjoy helping people and enjoy getting the lights back on and allowing people getting back to their normal lives.”

Matt’s crews have restored thousands of customers throughout Marion County, S.C. 

So far his crews have experienced severe flooding, with waters reaching the hood of his F250. Yesterday his crews were asked to pack extra clothes in their truck in case flood waters blocked roadways back into the city. Linemen were prepared to sleep in their trucks in case they couldn’t cross flooded roadways.

The areas where they have worked in South Carolina are rural and the infrastructure sometimes hard to get to after a storm.

“In a populated area, the main power line is short. In rural areas like these, the challenge we have is that the main power line could be 5 or 50 miles, which could take a lot longer to repair.” 

Matt and his team wrapped up their work in South Carolina Tuesday evening and hit the road for North Carolina this morning - to Morehead City, N.C., one of the hardest-hit areas for power outages – to join thousands of others working to restore power . They will do there what they did for customers in South Carolina – they will get the lights back on and help folks get their lives back to normal once again.

Bringing hope to Hope Mills, N.C.

Grace Rountree, @DE_GraceR

Today I had the pleasure of meeting Melissa Adams, town manager of Hope Mills, N.C., in Cumberland County. With a “boss lady” nameplate on her desk, she has served in this position just shy of two years. 

Originally from Moore County, she’s seen her fair share of storms pass through North Carolina. When Florence  made landfall last Thursday, the majority of the 17,000 citizens that call Hope Mills home lost power, making it a challenge to communicate information with residents. 

Adams says that Hurricane Florence, while its wrath brought less damage to the area, was worse than Matthew because it stretched over such a long period of time. With Big Rock and Little Rock waterways overflowing, several bridges were not accessible and forced the community to close roads. 

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A savior in this storm was the completion of a dam which was not in use in time for Matthew. Filled up by nature in Jan. 2018 this dam helped control water levels. Florence was the “first big test” for the dam. 

In the days after the storm rolled through, Adams credits teamwork for ensuring the safety of Hope Mills residents. In close partnership with the fire and police department, Public Works, NCDOT and others, they continue inspections around town. During our conversation, a bridge opened up making the town more accessible. 

With tears in her eyes, she talked about how she “loves all the people” of Hope Mills and is so humbled by their graciousness and appreciation, especially in the wake of this historic, devastating storm. 

Adams said, “we’re strong and we will come out of this even stronger.” One thing is for sure, the Town of Hope Mills is lucky to have this “boss lady” at the helm. 

And with the lights coming back on at Town Hall last night, Adams said she and others jumped for joy!

Braving the elements to get the lights back on

Jeff Brooks, @DE_JeffB

Every job at Duke Energy starts with a safety brief, but they don’t usually include the words: “watch out for alligators.”

This brief was for a job to repair equipment on five power poles in a marshy area under Wilmington’s Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The water was so high over the weekend that in some places it reached the crews’ chests as they assessed damage. 

That’s when they knew they’d need special equipment for this job. The company had a fleet of tracked vehicles ready for situations like these across the coastal areas. The trucks allow crews to drive through the swamps to each power pole so they can climb up and make the repairs. 

DJ Mintz, a Duke Energy lineman who works in the Wilmington area, was there with the crew from MasTec who was making the repairs. He said it took a few days to coordinate the project and figure out what equipment was needed because of the flooding. 

He’s worked for the company for about 6 years and said this storm brought more damage than any other that he’s worked. It took about 3 hours to finish the job once the crew drove into the marsh, and Mintz said the repairs would help restore power to several large industrial customers. 

New Hanover County had about 46,000 customers without power at the time, and Mintz was ready to move on to his next project. 

“I’ll just be happy,” he said, “when we get all the lights on.”

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Relentless work in the heat

Chris Rimel, @ChrisRimel 

My day started at 6 a.m. at a base camp in Newport, N.C.

A base camp is like a small city where more than 900 workers eat, sleep, bathe, gas up their trucks and pick up the day’s supplies – poles, transformers and other equipment. To take care of our customers, we have to take care of our crews who work 16 hours a day from sun up to sundown.

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In the New Bern area, reporters from CNBC and Fox News are reporting on our restoration efforts and the challenges we are facing. Communities are still lakes. Roads remain impassable. Trees are uprooted and twisted. Roofs are gone. Power poles are split in half, and wires dangle like spaghetti. And, it’s hot. Really hot.  

But an expected optimism, pride and energy fill the humid air. Customers heard the president is in town. Restoration companies, including 600 Duke Energy workers from the Midwest, are everywhere. People are in their yards, and the sound of chainsaws echo throughout neighborhoods. Shopkeepers are emptying their stores and starting to rebuild from the inside out.

Back at the New Bern Operations Center, I see a giant trophy from a lineman’s rodeo – a competition that attracts the world’s best linemen to compete in a variety of events to test their skills. Despite the frustration and inconvenience of not having power, I’m reminded that we are in good hands. A lineman’s passion for helping customers return to normalcy after a natural disaster fuels them. They’re good at it, and they will not stop until the power is back on.

Sept. 18

Flooded roads and downed poles

Grace Rountree, @DE_GraceR

Today I traveled from Raleigh to see our crews working in Sampson, Harnett and Cumberland counties. Road closures, especially the closure of I95, made travel difficult and we were rerouted several times in order to reach impacted communities. In some cases, portions of roadways and bridges were completely destroyed and our crews had to work around these damaged areas.

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ATVs, off-road vehicles and other special tracking equipment helped ground crews gain access to areas needing repairs in local communities. Our crews were laser-focused on safety and teamwork to ensure everyone knew to check on each other and how to reach the nearest medical facility if they encountered any issues while working in remote areas. 

Severe flooding and downed trees on power lines are the two biggest challenges in this area. Crews are in good spirits and glad to have the opportunity to help communities get back to normal. They don’t plan to rest until the job is done and lights are back on for every customer. 

A Wild ride

Chris Rimel, @ChrisRimel 

At noon on Monday, I left my wife, two kids and home in Tiger country South Carolina then headed to the North Carolina coast at 7 a.m. Tuesday.  

I hitched a helicopter ride from Charlotte to Wilmington and headed north to New Bern. What should have been a 90 minute 78-mile trip lasted three and a half hours due to flooding, multiple detours and roads packed with military and utility vehicles.

Within 20 minutes of arriving at the operations center in New Bern, I called Duke Energy’s Steven Blakely, who’s part of a damage assessment team. He said, “I can’t talk right now. We’re trying to rescue some horses.”

The horses’ owners had left the animals sheltered in Pollocksville on what they thought would be high ground before the storm hit. They returned on Tuesday to find their horses up to their necks in water.

As the Duke Energy team assessed damage to a transmission line using drones launched from a boat ramp, they saw the horses floundering in deep floodwaters and their owners trying to walk them to higher ground without success.

“It was getting bad really quickly,” Blakely said. They had to do something.   

The team collared each horse and slowly lured them to higher ground by boat. On the shore, a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission officer was ready to help and take the horses to a veterinarian.

I’m not sure what tomorrow holds, but deploying to North Carolina’s hardest-hit areas is going to be a wild ride, but I already know it’s going to be one that brings out the best in communities and companies.

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Rebuilding Wilmington, pole by pole

Jeff Brooks, @DE_JeffB

Early Tuesday, trucks rolled through the supply yard picking up transformers, power lines and poles to rebuild the infrastructure that Hurricane Florence destroyed over the weekend. Duke Energy estimates crews will need to replace about 500 miles of line, 2,600 transformers and 4,400 power poles across the Carolinas. 

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On Market Street, a main road in Wilmington, a crew from Duke Energy Ohio was replacing two power poles that were broken in half. It’s a critical project because this fix will restore power to thousands of customers along Market Street and an industrial park. 

Depending on the conditions of the pole and terrain, the crew said, fixing one pole would probably take around 5 hours. And this pole was a little complicated. 

As the crews were hand digging a roughly 6-foot-deep hole to install the pole, they realized the ground was too sandy and wet. They brought in a vacuum truck that would suck out the water and sand. 

After a few minutes, they were ready to put up the pole. The process requires two trucks — one with a bucket and one with a giant claw — and a lot of teamwork. Together, they use one truck to lift the new pole off the ground and the other to keep the power lines out of the way while the crew on the ground helps direct the new pole into the claw to hold it steady until it’s set in place. 

Once it’s straight and the hole is filled in, they take the buckets up to remove the broken pole and transfer the equipment and lines to the new pole. 

They equipment is heavy, and the days are long and hot, but pole by pole and project by project crews are restoring power to the Carolinas.

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En route to Wilmington

Dana Nigro, @Dknigro

I began the day Tuesday with our team of drone operators traveling with crews from Louisiana who loaded cranes,floats and other special equipment on flatbed trucks to help navigate flooded areas for our crews in the field. We began the trek from Florence, S.C., and we are enroute to Wilmington, N.C.

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I met up with an inspection crew and we left ahead of the convoy by 30 minutes to ensure all the roads were clear and not blocked by trees, floods or any unexpected challenges not on our radar. A rushing river did block access to the initial travel route and was inaccessible for vehicles. The crew developed a new plan after researching the area’s roads and redirected the team.

Once we arrive in Wilmington, we will join crews and continue as they work to get power restored to our communities along the coast.

South of the Border

Ana Gibbs, @DE_AnaGibbs

Today started at 5:30 a.m. in Florence, S.C. I’m following some of my fellow teammates from Florida here in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina as they help restore some sense of normal to our customers. Some of our crew leads left at 6 a.m. and headed to the Duke Energy operations center in Marion, the next county over. They pored over maps to overcome the challenge they again face today to find safe roads to areas isolated by flooding. Areas like those still without power in Dillon County.

One of the priorities today is getting a middle school and high school back on in the town of Lake View. The challenge: moving trucks and equipment through the flooded roads.

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Before any works starts, every crew every day begins with a safety meeting. Today our friends from Primoris Services out of Dallas, Texas, are helping us out and join in our safety discussion. Safety-first culture is a critical component of the utility industry, important every day but critical in storm restoration. It protects both our crews and our customers.

I’ve been a tourist for days now in South Carolina but today I truly feel like one as I’ve encountered for the first time the one, the only South of the Border. If you’ve ever travelled I-95 through South Carolina you’ve seen the Pedro signs and the sombrero up high right there at the state line with North Carolina. Today, dozens of bucket trucks gathered here to launch the day’s operation to restore homes in and around the town of Dillon. Our teams restored the feeder - our backbone to the electric system - yesterday so Pedro is back in business, though with I-95 closed on both sides of the state line he may still be a bit lonely for a few days.

We’re hoping to reach many Dillon neighborhoods today. As we head out from South of the Border we travel down the Old Hamer Highway with a damage assessment group from Pinellas County, Fla. Many on this team are engineers. They move ahead of our crews to identify the equipment needed for repairs and then do a final sweep - feeder to the meter - to make sure everyone’s power is on.

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