Closed Circuit

​By Leah Wilson

Photos by Will Schnyer​

On Aug. 27, Hurricane Laura, approaching maximum force, made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana. The storm did considerable damage to the electric transmission and distribution system serving southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana.

The storm caused more than 613,000 customer outages across Louisiana, resulting in the need for support. While power restoration was possible for many areas, southwest Louisiana suffered significant damage to transmission and distribution infrastructure.

The state of Louisiana is divided into 64 parishes, unlike most other U.S. states, which are separated into counties. Calcasieu and Cameron parishes were the most critical to restore, with Cameron Parish having the largest number of power outages.

Hurricane’s wake

In response to Laura, the Federal Emergency Management Agency mobilized federal response teams to support Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, including Emergency Support Function #12.

On Sept. 14, Director of Transmission and Construction Will Schnyer—who has ESF #12 experience—was asked by the Department of Energy to provide FEMA and Jefferson Davis Electric Cooperative with a basic analysis of restoration options. By Sept. 18, he was on the scene.

“Lower Cameron Parish, which borders the Gulf Coast, was completely devastated,” he said. “I’ve worked various types of disasters throughout my career, but the Lower Cameron Parish damage ranks as some of the worst devastation I’ve ever witnessed.”

Schnyer and two other ESF #12s formed an assessment team, which was tasked by FEMA to assess the damage to JDEC’s service territory. The team and JDEC staff worked with Royal Engineering & Consultants—a Louisiana-based engineering and consulting firm—throughout the assessment period.

JDEC is a small electric cooperative serving the rural parishes of Allen, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson Davis and Vermillion. They serve the energy needs of roughly 11,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers.

Not his first rodeo

“My ESF #12 skillset is as a subject-matter expert for transmission and distribution infrastructure,” said Schnyer. “I’ve worked 7,620-volt underground distribution up to 500-kilovolt transmission both as a Florida Power & Light lineman and as a WAPA craftsman.”

 Throughout his 36-year career, Schnyer has participated in restoration efforts and gained experience restoring power after natural disasters—such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, ice storms, fires and more—took their toll on electric utility infrastructure.

In 2012, Schnyer was WAPA’s onsite incident commander for 92 craft employees who assisted FirstEnergy in New Jersey for around one month in response to Hurricane Sandy rebuild efforts.

 He was the onsite incident commander again five years later for 30 craft employees who assisted the U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority on St. Thomas. WAPA participated in power restoration efforts for roughly two and a half months in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

 Schnyer also deployed as an ESF #12 in 2018, assisting the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands utilities on Guam, Rota, Tinian and Saipan with power restoration after typhoons struck the areas.

 His experience with these similar situations has been helpful.

 “Direct personal participation in these types of events provides valuable experience that is always helpful and oftentimes utilized later on,” he said.

Getting to work

On Sept. 18-19, the team visited Louisiana’s Lake Charles area to conduct damage assessments of transmission and distribution assets. It became very clear that extensive damage impacted JDEC’s electrical infrastructure throughout its Lower Cameron Parish service territory.

“Most wooden power poles, steel lattice structures, substation transformers, switchgears and associated hardware and equipment were damaged beyond repair and in need of replacement,” Schnyer said.

Hundreds of transmission lines and distribution poles in Lower Cameron Parish were damaged. Schnyer spoke to responders, residents and others when he was performing the damage assessments.

“Mutual-aid responders never forget the experiences they encounter during storm restoration work,” he said. “I was in awe at the resilience and daily efforts from the JDEC staff who lived and worked in the hardest-hit area of Louisiana. They were doing the best they could despite enduring hardships to restore normalcy to their lives and to the communities they live in.”

On Sept. 21, Tropical Storm Beta made landfall in Texas. The storm flooded parts of the area and delayed restoration efforts.

Additional site visits continued, with the goal of collecting, evaluating and sharing information on energy system damage and estimating the impact of outages within affected areas for FEMA.

Staying safe

Amidst restoration efforts, the Baton Rouge Joint Field Office area Schnyer was assigned to was very proactive in promoting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing and mask use. Temperatures were taken each morning and mitigating measures to protect all deployed staff were consistently enforced.

On Sept. 28, FEMA released the ESF #12s to return home. They have continued their efforts in a virtual setting.

“It’s my observation and opinion that restoration and re-energization efforts will continue for the next several months, primarily in the southwestern part of Louisiana along the Gulf Coast,” Schnyer said.​​

Challenges and appreciation

There are considerable challenges to overcome to fully restore southwestern Louisiana. One of which is the difficulty of accessing and repairing the transmission lines located beneath the intracoastal waterway. Another is supply-chain issues.​

“I appreciate the many WAPA employees for their unwavering support during my deployment in response to Hurricane Laura,” Schnyer said. “WAPA was also willing to provide material support to assist in this effort. This is a testament to the type of organization we are, the employees that work here and the community spirit we have.”

Schnyer ultimately developed a report in collaboration with other ESF #12s for FEMA, describing the scope of the issues and the potential recommendations for repair, rebuild and re-energization for the JDEC Cameron Parish assets.​

“I’m always amazed by how resilient and compassionate our citizens are to one another, despite the hardships they endure,” Schnyer reflected. “Hardships often teach us invaluable lessons. For me, these experiences always serve as a reminder of how blessed I am.”

Note: Wilson is an administrative analyst who works under the Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs contract.

Transmission poles damaged and destroyed by winds.

Above:  Strong winds from Hurricane Laura damaged or destroyed a significant amount of transmission and distribution infrastructure.

See more photos at the Flickr album.

Last modified on March 5th, 2024