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Posted on September 13, 2017

Hurricane Irma Response Mirrors a Military Operation

By Andrea Menniti and Mayra Tostado

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A week ago, the North Palm Beach County Airport was just another general-aviation airport serving private pilots. Today, it’s a fully functional base camp where crews and support personnel from PG&E are part of one of the largest restoration efforts in history.

The transformation came as a result of Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida with high winds and heavy rains over the weekend, knocking millions of customers out of power. About 125 PG&E IBEW Local 1245 line workers, equipment operators, supervisors and support personnel are helping Florida Power & Light (FPL) respond to the havoc caused by Irma.

(Click here to read all of the coverage of PG&E’s response to Hurricane Irma in Florida.)

PG&E employees joined forces with Florida Power & Light as it established one of its base camps at the North Palm Beach County Airport. (Photos by Andrea Menniti.)

Although damage from a hurricane can be random, the restoration effort is the opposite.

“This is very much a military operation,” said Rob Gould, FPL vice president and chief communications officer. “We are deploying 20,000 ‘troops’ positioning them ahead of time and shifting them as needed.”

Among the nearly 20,000 “troops” are FPL employees and workers from other energy companies, including PG&E. They flew from Sacramento to West Palm Beach last Friday (Sept. 8) ahead of the hurricane and were some of the first boots-on-the-ground once the storm passed.

In all, FPL estimates 5 million power outages from Irma, the largest number in company history. In total, crews are fanned out across the state working aggressively in 35 counties.

PG&E's Helen Santoro, the logistics chief for the company's hurricane response, says a base camp is critical because it creates a central location for command staff, crews, trucks and materials.

On Tuesday (Sept. 12), PG&E employees joined forces with FPL as it established one of its base camps at the North Palm Beach County Airport. Here, FPL is staging vehicles and equipment such as transformers and spools of wire to help with equipment repair and replacement efforts in the greater West Palm Beach area.

“Setting up a base camp is absolutely mission critical,” said Helen Santoro, a construction engineer supervisor based in San Jose who is serving as the logistics chief for PG&E’s Irma response team. “Your command staff is sitting next to your crews and trucks. They have their material, their work packages, their food. Sometimes we even house them. Keeping our contingent isolated and in one place is the most productive way we can run our business.”

One of PG&E’s Mobile Command Vehicles (MCV) arrived at the base camp Tuesday. PG&E’s Incident Command team is running crew operations from the MCV, which has sophisticated communications and mapping capability as well as plentiful work space. In addition, PG&E shipped pods from California to Florida filled with Personal Protective Equipment, additional tools and safety gear, and crews’ additional personal belongings. Those also arrived at the base camp.

The base camp includes spools of wire and other materials to help with equipment repair and replacement.

FPL said its goal is to have essentially all of its customers restored on Florida’s East Coast by this weekend with most of its customers on Florida’s West Coast by Sept. 22. PG&E crews have been working in the greater West Palm Beach region, where 260,000 customers remain out of power.

As of Wednesday (Sept. 13) morning, FPL said 60 percent of the customers who lost power now have their lights on. PG&E crews helped restore power to at least 4,000 customers so far.

For PG&E crews, restoring power to people who live thousands of miles away from California has been very rewarding.

“We’ve had residents drive by and honk, offer us water and drop by to say thank you,” said Jose Tirado, a PG&E general construction foreman based in Paso Robles. “It’s very rewarding for us to help people in need. It’s our job and it’s an honor to help.”

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