Friday, May 2, 2014

Guest Post: The Week Ike Came to Town, part 1

Editor's note:  Erin is terribly busy this week.  Between catching up on a week's absence, fighting off Con Crud, her own mother's chronic health problems and the hijinks involved with "upgrading" Windows XP to Vista, she doesn't have time to write an article. 

The Week Ike Came to Town
(and didn't bring Tina)
Part 1: Electricity

by John "TXGunGeek" Kochan

John has been a volunteer firefighter/EMT since 1980. This is his story of being off-grid for an entire week in the wake of a hurricane, as well as being Acting Chief of his Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) during that time.

There are many lessons to be learned from going through a week without power, post-Hurricane Ike. This is an overview, but there will be other posts in the future breaking out specific lessons learned from this experience.

A little history 

Some years ago, Entergy pulled an electrical version of the cable company: they sold the county on cheap electricity, but only along the state highways that run through the county and the major population centers that go with them. The rest of the folks living in the very rural parts of our rural county had to go with the local electrical co-op. Keep in mind that the local electrical co-ops in Texas have a phenomenal quality rating, as everyone from the linemen to the executive board are local folks who rely on this electric for their lives and livelihoods. Meanwhile, Entergy is a Louisiana based company that is not part of ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas AKA the Texas power grid). Additionally, we live in a pretty rural county. It is 30 minutes to an hour to get to the nearest recognizable metro area (>50K population), and in 2.5 hours you can be in any one of three major metropolitan areas (>1 Million population).

Enter from the south, Hurricane Ike. Since Texas is not Louisiana and Houston is not New Orleans, evacuations happened ahead of time and people mostly got prepared for the hurricane to come through and generally disrupt life. Problem was, when it passed along the Texas – Louisiana border it wiped out the main feed line for Entergy taking all of their Texas customers power with it. The customers on the “little” local electric co-ops had their lights flicker and within a day they had power restored. Entergy customers, on the other hand, sat in the dark. It took 6 days for some of the feeders to get repaired and another day or two for our local services to be fixed and back up. There were parts of Texas without power for 12 days.

This created an interesting set of problems. Some people had wells for water and some were on a variety of small water supply corps lines. Depending upon where the wells supplying water were actually located, some people had no power but still had water, and some had no power or water. Some out in the sparsely populated areas had both water and power still on.

On to the festivities

During the approach of Hurricane Ike, the Chief of our department notified me that he had been activated as part of the emergency crew for the natural gas plant where he worked, so he would be unavailable during the storm. That made me acting Chief of the VFD. When the hurricane first hit, our precinct Constable notified the firefighters who were staying at our main station that a large tree was down across the Farm to Market road that is our main N-S corridor and needed to be cleared. The firefighters went to have a look and see what could be done to clear the roadway at least enough for emergency traffic. I joined them to get them back to shelter before the main part of the storm hit. Once back at the station, a citizen drove up to inform us there was a house a few blocks away that had smoke coming out of it. By the time we made the few blocks drive the house was pretty much fully involved, and I called county dispatch to turn out our department as well as the next two closest for mutual aid response. This turned into a total loss of structure because the homeowner had used candles to light the house after power went out, and he had left windows open to vent because he was using portable propane fired heaters inside the house. The portable heaters were being fed by 5 gallon tanks of propane that were scattered throughout the house. Can you say "bombs waiting to go off"? Did I mention that the homeowner had left the heaters and candles burning while he went across the street to visit neighbors during the height of the storm and returned after the first fire trucks arrived? Well, that was exciting. We returned to the station after the fire only to regroup and head out to start clearing roadways with the precinct road crew.

With the power out, we cleared the trucks out of three bays of the station and set up the folding tables and chairs that the department has for fundraisers and functions and got a portable generator going to power up lights so the people in town had someplace to gather. We also put together some light food for people to snack on as we waited for the lights to come back on. Once we got word that there had been major damage to the electric system and this would not be a short duration outage, we settled into longer term mode. This included getting a larger generator going to power not only lights but also freezers and microwaves for larger volume food prep.

This is where community comes in

As soon as we spread word that we would be open all day, every day, to feed and give people a place to gather, the various church organizations came through like gangbusters. The local mens' organizations showed up with smokers and grills to start prepping main courses. One guy showed up in a flatbed roll-off wrecker with an all-stainless steel 8-burner stove, twin oven industrial range, and a 150 gallon propane tank to feed it on the bed of the truck! We set up the grills and such behind the station and put together a serving line that would continue over to the kitchen of the fire station. Supplies were stored in the day room and brought out to be used for serving the folks that came in. The local women's organizations set up shop in these two locations to distribute food and supplies. In addition, we got a call from the local Consolidated School District and were told that they had food in their freezers that needed to go somewhere or it would thaw and rot. So that became the first couple of days’ worth of food.

When the regional TV station news came out to take video of the house that burned down and the general store that collapsed during the hurricane, they came by the station and did a story about what we were doing. Even though all of the VFD’s in the county were doing the same thing, the TV station did the story about us. This was both an advantage and disadvantage. Once the story broke, there was a constant stream of vehicles loaded with supplies that private citizens from miles around were bringing out to donate! We had more than enough in donations. The problem was, we had too much. We had to use the day room and two of the engine bays as storage to put everything. As the donations poured in, I was in contact with the other fire chiefs throughout the county to make plans to distribute what was coming in and find out if anyone had any special needs. (Just FYI, while all this was going on, the repeater tower for the county was hit in the hurricane so the fire repeater was down.)

This is just day one, so things were just getting started. 

Prior to this, it was all local folks helping out their neighbors, but next came the Baptist Men’s Group. They started trucking in hot meals in ice chests by the trailer load. Then the first of the Red Cross aid started. The Feds finally showed up on day three, and then again every day after that. FEMA was trucking in 18 wheelers of ice to the sheriff’s office and we would have to move it from there. We organized a distribution scheme to get the food and ice from where it was to the various VFD’s for distribution to the folks who needed it. This took the Sheriff’s Department, all of the VFD’s in the county, the county Judge, and members of the community all coming together to take care of each other.

There were many little gotchas that happened during this time. Those will be mentioned in following articles. There are also individual posts on lessons learned during this incident, and expansions on what you can do to better prepare yourself for the next storm that comes along, as well as some tips on prepping based on first responder experience during crises.

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