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Linemen, residents saw unusual challenges in restoring power from powerful Laura

Koty Tanner and his team of electricians worked to restore power in New York following the effects of Tropical Storm Fay in July.

That weather system landed in New Jersey on July 9 and dissipated after three days, reaching winds of 60 mph and resulting in damages estimated at $400 million.

But for Tanner, a contractor based in Bloomington, Illinois, Hurricane Laura was a different beast.

Reaching winds as high as 150 mph and arriving on the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 on Aug. 27, Laura caused heavy damage in Southwest Louisiana — but not without making her mark on Southeast Texas.

According to multiple reports, Texas and Louisiana sustained between $4 billion and $12 billion of damage. While Laura did not directly cause any confirmed deaths in Texas (but was linked to a reported three to six deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning from generator misuse), her wrath left many west of the Sabine River without power for up to a week.

In the week since Laura’s touchdown, many along the Gulf Coast had to bear the steamy late-summer weather with no air conditioning and find sources for food, water and ice.

Some grocery stores and other businesses remained closed for a few days and have had to limit their shopping hours while reopening in the wake of Laura — not to mention in the midst of an ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Downed power lines on some streets in Port Arthur and surrounding areas posed a hazard to drivers trying to navigate their way home amid darkness. Across Southwest Louisiana, by Entergy’s count, Laura wrecked approximately 1,000 transmission structures, broke 6,637 poles, impacted 2,926 transformers and left 338 miles of downed distribution wire. Statewide, Laura left 8,436 damaged poles, 3,434 impacted transformers and 463 miles of downed wire.

Transmission damage near Orange is seen. Entergy said its focus is on repairing the catastrophic damage to the transmission system across Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana, which together provide power to the eastern portion of Texas.

How that impacted Entergy’s customers in Texas: Six of the nine major transmission lines that deliver power for their service area from Louisiana were knocked out, the company said. In one news release earlier this week, Entergy stated many transmission structures within the lines were damaged beyond repair and required complete replacement.

But by Thursday (Sept. 3), power was finally restored in all of Jefferson County — Port Arthur and Groves were most damaged among its cities — with 5,000 more customers without it in harder-hit Orange County, Entergy Texas spokesman Andy Schonert confirmed.

Additional manpower

In the days since Laura, the power company turned to outside help in hopes of speeding up its restoration process, many crews setting up staging areas at Central Mall, Jefferson City Shopping Center and Jack Brooks Regional Airport.

“Our restoration force of 23,200 workers across Texas and Louisiana includes our own employees, contractors and mutual assistance crews from other companies,” Schonert said. “This is the largest restoration effort we have ever mobilized, and its size will fluctuate as we complete restoration in some areas and relocate our workers.”

Yet, Entergy did not see its largest outage resulting in a storm during the past week. Hurricane Ike in 2008 resulted in 392,000 customers without power in Texas alone, 100,700 more than Laura impacted, according to Schonert.

Tanner and his father Billy, also a lineman, faced restoration challenges on the ground.

“We’ve spent countless hours trying to find out where the main feeds are coming from and working from there and trying to get everything from there on,” Koty Tanner said. “As soon as we heat things up, we’re able to start working off that main backbone and then getting those side streets on. It’s a lot of poles and wire down. This was a very devastating storm. You go over into the Louisiana area, where we’ve been a little bit lately, [and] I feel bad for the people over there, honestly. It’s unreal how bad it is.”

Laura was one of the most extensive storms to which Tanner and his crew responded, he said.

“My dad has 45 years of line work under his belt,” he said. “Like he told me, this is one of the worst storms he’s ever seen in his career.”

A city of Port Arthur electrical division truck sets up temporary signs at the intersection of Gulfway Drive and Woodworth Boulevard on Aug. 27, hours after Hurricane Laura blew through the city. (Jerome Cabeen/Special to The News) 8-27-20

Better safe than sorry

Retired Lincoln High School basketball coach James Gamble did not wait around to see whether Laura would take it easy on Port Arthur. He left his home the Sunday before Laura hit the city and headed to his son’s residence in San Antonio for a week.

Turns out, Gamble said, power was out at his home in Port Arthur’s El Vista area for only 24 hours, a remarkable outcome considering the woes others in the county faced.

“Back in the day we had Hurricane Carla (in 1961), power outages and flooding and stuff like that,” said Gamble, who serves on the board of Drainage District 7. “Anytime that you get these hurricanes with high winds, it’s going to knock power lines down, trees and different things like that,” Gamble said. “Poles get dilapidated and winds strong enough to knock them down.”

Gamble’s neighborhood is usually the first to lose power in a storm and the last to come back on, he said, so the short outage came as a shock to him.

It was also a blessing, he added.

Still, Gamble gave Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie credit for being proactive in issuing a mandatory evacuation order that went into effect two days before Laura came. Gamble noted Bartie didn’t worry about any criticism from those who believed they could have otherwise weathered Laura.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Mayor Thurman Bartie talk with State Rep. Joe Deshotel, walking behind them. (I.C. Murrell/The News)

Improvements now and on the horizon

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas District 18) also praised Bartie for his efforts during a visit to Port Arthur on Monday (Aug. 31). The congresswoman said she would push for better energy infrastructure during discussions for Laura relief on Capitol Hill.

“That’s something we in modern-day America have to address because we are in the hurricane,” Jackson Lee said. “We are in the eye of the storm.”

Schonert said Entergy Texas has made significant transmission investments, including approximately $740 million worth of new projects in service over a five-year period with more to come in at least the next three years totaling $665 million and more than $1.9 billion in capital projects (power generation, transmission and distribution) between 2018-20.

The capital projects improvement “helps Southeast Texas be more prepared for and better withstand major hurricanes and other storm events that are prevalent in ETI’s [Entergy Texas Inc.] service area,” Schonert said. “For instance, Entergy Texas has raised several substation control houses, including Vidor, Viway, McDonald, Bevil and Amelia Bulk substations, in an effort to harden the electric system.”

Entergy Texas is in the process of adding additional power generation, Schonert added, including construction of a new power plant and additional transmission lines to improve reliability.

He named the Port Arthur Reliability project as a major investment that will provide additional redundancy and improved reliability.

“We have continued to make investments to improve the infrastructure to serve our customers,” Schonert said.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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