​Story by Philip Reed, photos by Russ Barnett

Throughout 2018, WAPA employees supported restoration efforts after a number of high-profile tragedies, including hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, a typhoon and more. Events such as these may capture headlines and stand out in the minds of the public, but it’s important to remember that WAPA is always preparing for, preventing and responding to service interruptions throughout its territory.

In the midst of these headline-grabbing catastrophes, Upper Great Plans experienced a glut of storms that kept them just as busy at home. As a year marked by major restoration efforts draws to a close, it’s the right time to reflect on a series of storms that may have slid under the radar. 

Best laid plans 

From June 18-28, crews in Bismarck, North Dakota, worked on a large-scale line rebuild. The project was planned and organized in advance, with craft employees ready for what was sure to be an exhausting two-week stint. 

Of course, planning only goes so far. 

Around 4 p.m. on June 28, the final day of the rebuild, strong winds in Roosevelt County, Montana, wrought havoc on the 115-kilovolt Wolf Pointto-Circle transmission line. The winds were so powerful that they toppled six H-frame structures. 

“The structures were no more than six years old,” said Supervisory Maintenance Specialist Russ Barnett, who serves as Montana’s transmission line supervisor. “That line is 40 miles long, plus or minus, and we just finished rebuilding it in 2017.” 

The wind meant response was difficult enough, but responding crews also had to deal with significant rainfall. 

“We got about two to three inches in less than an hour,” Barnett said. “It made cleanup a real struggle.” 

The Bismarck line crew could have dispatched to assist, but then, just after midnight on June 29, they had their own problem to deal with: storms with winds reaching 130 mph. 

“The 115-kV Garrison-to-Beulah line tripped, so the Bismarck crew headed out to look at that,” said Field Maintenance Manager Marc Kress. 

While the Bismarck crew was on its way out to investigate, Dispatch tried the Garrison-to-Beulah line and found that it held. That was the only good news. 

“Immediately afterward, the Garrison-to-Jamestown 230-kV line tripped,” Kress continued. “So the Jamestown crew headed out and discovered 10 lattice steel structures down.” Kress worked with the sheriff’s department to barricade roads as necessary to keep the public safe and allow crews to work efficiently. The Jamestown line crew began cleanup and repair, and the Bismarck crew returned home for some much-needed rest. 

“They had been out for two weeks doing difficult work,” Kress said, “and Dispatch didn’t need the line immediately. We thought we could afford to wait until after the Fourth of July holiday week to get them involved in the rebuilding.” 

Of course, nature had other plans. The next day, June 30, another powerful storm hit the Garrison-to-Mallard line, causing the static pin to fail and the line to trip. 

More, more, more 

That would likely have been more than enough to keep crews busy, but the rash of storms was far from finished sweeping the region.

“The original plan was to get the crews from Bismarck, Devil’s Lake and Fargo to go to Jamestown and assist that crew with their repairs,” Kress reflected. “Then each of them had their own lines hit. Every one of those crews was involved in its own line rebuild.” 

Late July 3, thunderstorms took down an H-frame structure on the 115-kV Fort Peck-to-Wolf Point #1 line at a railroad crossing. 

“Just as I arrived onsite and was working to stop the trains, a train came along and ran over the downed conductor, cutting it,” said Barnett. “Because the wire was under tension, it whipped backward into the Fort Peck-to-Wolf Point #2 line, which runs parallel, and got tangled up.” 

In addition to the Wolf Point-to-Circle transmission line, which was still out of service from June 28, this made for three lines down in the Fort Peck area. They were quickly joined by a fourth.

“At about the same time, the 34.5-kV Fort Peck-to-Wolf Point line went out of service,” Barnett continued. “This line serves two irrigation pumps and the West Frazer Substation. There were no broken structures, but there were multiple broken post insulators that were extremely hard to find in the dark.” 

Four out of five transmission options to get WAPA power out of Fort Peck were now out of service. 

“This was a major interruption, but luckily it only lasted for about five hours,” Barnett said. “The crew took the time to untangle the #1 and #2 lines from each other and to clear the railroad tracks. Once that was taken care of, we were able to switch the #2 back into service and buy ourselves some time.” 

Timing is everything 

It’s certainly not uncommon for crews to respond to storm damage, but such a large number of storms hitting in such a short period of time during a holiday week when many employees were on leave posed a problem. 

“Timing was everything,” Barnett said. “This happened over a holiday and our crews were simply not available.” 

What’s more, the bad weather was not letting up. 

On July 8, more storms with winds in excess of 100 mph brought down four wooden H-frame structures on the 115-kV Devil’s Lake-to-Barlow line, leaving a fifth leaning dangerously, and brought five wooden H-frame structures on the 230-kV Grand Forks-to-Pinkard Sects line down. Both lines tripped. 

The most tragic of these storms occurred July 10, when a tornado swept through Watford City, North Dakota, with wind speeds of around 130 mph. The tornado struck an RV park the hardest, where 199 structures were damaged, 122 structures were completely destroyed, more than two dozen people were injured and a one-week-old baby was killed. 

“It was a very sad situation,” said Kress. “The park was hit hard and there was a lot of destruction.” 

Watford City Substation was buffeted by debris and six wooden H-frame structures on the 230-kV line were damaged. 

Shining through darkness 

With so much to respond to in such a short period of time, it was important for crews not to spread themselves too thin. 

“Prioritizing became the major thing on our minds, with our equipment spread all over the region and delays on getting it moved around,” Barnett said. “Also, accessibility was a concern due to the repeated rainfall over several weeks.” 

Fortunately, though, the tide was turning. Little by little, the crews started to see their difficult work pay off. On July 12, the repairs to the Garrison-to-Mallard line were completed and the line was reenergized. 

The next day in Devil’s Lake, damaged structures were replaced and lines were reenergized. On July 23, the Garrison-to-Jamestown line’s damaged lattice steel structures were replaced with temporary wood structures, with permanent steel structures to follow. On July 26, crews completed repairs in Watford City. 

UGP’s summer of storms was finally coming to an end, leaving behind a number of important lessons to be learned. 

“In my case, I learned the phone numbers for the railroad in emergency situations,” Barnett said. 

He also shared some advice that he hoped other regions can benefit from. 

“Take advantage of each window that you have to fix and repair your equipment,” he said, “and keep your movable equipment in safe spots where you can retrieve it when desperately needed.” 

Foreman II Lineman David Duckworth took the challenges in stride. Facing so many disparate issues in such a large region, he said to Kress, “This is where we shine.” 

Those words resonated with Kress. 

“He’s exactly right,” Kress said. “Circumstances like this, when there’s a challenge to overcome, when they need to grit their teeth to get the lights back on … that’s just where they shine.”

Note: Reed is a technical writer who works under the Wyandotte Services contract.

Photo of craft employees removing a wooden transmission pole
Photo of a wooden transmission pole on the ground

Upper Great Plains line crews repair transmission lines damaged by multiple weeks of summer storms in Montana and North Dakota.

Last modified on September 12th, 2023