GAYS MILLS - In mid-September, volunteer line crews from 18 Wisconsin electric cooperatives organized and departed to aid in Florida’s massive recovery effort, helping rebuild shattered electric systems in the wake of Hurricane Irma’s devastation.
More than 50 Wisconsin electric co-op employees responded to the call for action, including Scenic Rivers Co-op employees Reggie Lomas of Gays Mills, and Tory Henkel, Shane Crowley, and Matt Ritchie of Lancaster.
In all, more than 40 vehicles were dispatched from Wisconsin, including bucket trucks, pole-hauling trailers, and digging equipment.
All the Wisconsin volunteers were assigned to assist rebuilding at Clay Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Keystone Heights, Florida, northeast of Gainesville. Clay Electric Cooperative, similar to Scenic Rivers Cooperative, services a primarily rural area in Florida.
Following Hurricane Irma, Clay Electric had approximately 130,000 members—75 percent of its system—without power.
“We’re really proud of our folks,” Steve Lucas, Scenic Rivers CEO said. “They did a wonderful job down there, and exemplified the Co-op Principle of ‘Cooperation amongst cooperatives’.”
The sixth cooperative principle widely recognized by all cooperatives is known as ‘Cooperation Among Cooperatives.’ The principle reads, "Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional, and international structures.”
It was going to be bad
Hurricane Irma was the strongest hurricane observed in the Atlantic since Wilma in 2005 in terms of maximum sustained winds. It was the most intense Atlantic hurricane to strike the United States since Katrina in 2005, and the first major hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Wilma in 2005.
“The large scope of Hurricane Irma was demonstrated by how far away we had to request help,” Wayne Mattox, Communications Manager for Clay Electric Co-op in east central Florida said. “The storm was 400 miles wide and covered a large chunk of the state.”
The Florida Electric Cooperatives Association, a statewide trade group, put out a call for help a week in advance of the storm’s landfall in Florida, anticipating the huge storm’s potential to simultaneously batter the entire state.
“We started early, working with sister cooperatives in the Southeast, but quickly realized we were going to have to reach out further to get the help we were going to need,” Mattox said.
Line superintendents from Wisconsin cooperatives got word of the request at a previously scheduled meeting in Stevens Point and immediately began planning their response, assessing availability of workers and equipment.
A similar relief mission was launched by Wisconsin co-ops 12 years ago following Hurricane Katrina. Personnel from 14 Wisconsin electric cooperatives were dispatched over a four-week period to Louisiana on a rotating basis, helping to rebuild a local co-op distribution system that had been almost totally destroyed.
Work on the ground
“We are very appreciative of cooperative personnel willing to come from such great distances to help out,” Mattox shared. “The help we received is a good example of ‘Cooperation among Cooperatives’.”
Mattox explained that the Wisconsin crews worked in three counties that are served by their Salt Springs District – Marion, Volusia and Lake counties. These are rural areas.
“What we were faced with was lots of down trees, and broken poles and transformers,” Mattox explained. “The Wisconsin crews worked with us for five days – arriving on Wednesday, Sept. 13, and departing on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 17. By the time the out of state crews departed, we had 99.9 percent of our members back in service in seven days, thanks to all the outside help we received.”