Episode #5: #NewnanStrong Tornado Restoration Efforts with CEO Chris Stephens


Rachel Camp  0:11 

Welcome back to In The Loop, a podcast by Coweta-Fayette EMC. I’m Rachel Camp, and today I’m joined by special guest Chris Stephens, CEO of Coweta-Fayette EMC to talk about the recent E-F four tornado that tore through our local area and caused significant damage across our system that directly affected many of our members. We’re going to be talking to Chris about the details of the devastating event, how exactly our staff worked to restore power, and what was experienced during the process. So, let’s get started. Hi, Chris. And thanks for joining us today.

Chris Stephens  0:48 

Well, thank you, Rachel, thank you for having me.

Rachel Camp  0:51 

Yes, so this is the first time we’ve had you on our podcast. Why don’t we start by letting you introduce yourself?

Chris Stephens  0:57 

I’m Chris Stephens. I’m the President and CEO of Coweta-Fayette EMC and I’ve been here with Coweta-Fayette now for 25 years.

Rachel Camp  1:04 

Awesome. Okay, well, we’re going to just dive in. So, Chris, I understand that you’ve lived in Newnan all your life?

Chris Stephens  1:13 

Yeah, I was born and raised here in Newnan. In fact, I graduated from Newnan High School in 1987, and I’m fortunate enough to, you know, move back here after, you know, getting an electrical engineering degree and working in my hometown. So, it’s been really great. I enjoy the community. And it’s great to be here in this area.

Rachel Camp  1:32 

Wonderful. Well, we’re just going to be talking today about the tornado. Obviously, this has really impacted our community. And so, as someone who’s been here, a community member, all of your life and as the CEO of Coweta-Fayette EMC, you know, when we were getting reports of a possible tornado coming into the area, you know, what, what was going through your mind at the time, and how are you preparing for this?

Chris Stephens  2:00 

So, on the eve of the event, you know, we weren’t really anticipating anything major weather wise, we knew a front was coming through. And as always, we have our standby crews on and ready to go, but certainly, we we’re not expecting a tornado. And when I first was made aware of it, it was actually through an early warning system via cell phone. I was actually in the bed. I had woken up due to the thunder and lightning, but certainly was not aware until my wife told me that she received a message on her phone that we were under a tornado warning. And so turning on the news, we saw that the tornado was coming from Franklin straight towards Coweta and actually, towards where I live. And so we actually took cover, and once the storm passed, fortunately, it was south of us, our lights went out, but we had gotten dressed. So you know, I immediately got up and tell my wife bye, and I got in the truck. And I started, you know, really getting out and tried to assess to help, you know, the crews where I could. And, you know, just when I was riding out in some of the Western portions of the county, without any lights, I noticed that we had, you know, four bro poles, just riding down smoky road, so I knew the extent of the damage was going to be quite significant. And so I actually called our VP of operations Wendell Webb and let him know that, you know, hey, this is not going to be just a standby crew event and that we needed to roll and mobilize our team to get going. But you know, unlike typical storms, we are always preparing, and we have an emergency response plan in place. So, when we’re aware of significant weather, we’re always, you know, planning ahead. So, this was kind of a different situation for us. But as soon as we got the crews, our crews mobilized that evening when the sun came up and we really saw the extent of the devastation, we were able to immediately contact our statewide organization, Georgia EMC and activate our mutual aid agreements and actually begin getting to get crews rolling in our service territory. So, by midafternoon on that Friday, you know, we had 150 additional linemen or right away contractors here to help restore service.

Rachel Camp  4:28 

Wow, well, and none of us could have predicted, you know, the devastation that was going to come. So you know, when you were out assessing the area, I understand, you know, right after it hit you did get out and go ride around and assess what was going on, you know, what was what was going through your mind that that at that point, you were seeing this in front of you?

Chris Stephens  4:49 

Well, at the time, it was really just trying to get an understanding of what we had off at the time, not knowing that the devastation was to the extent that it was. So, it was really just trying to make a quick assessment and say, “Hey, you know, here’s what we need, to get some crews and just understand, you know the magnitude at the time,”. But again, it was not until the next morning when the sun came up that we really could understand the significance of the devastation. So, um, you know, thinking back on history and some of the tornadoes that we had experienced, you know, again, it’s usually a small area with significant damage, but nothing of this magnitude.

Rachel Camp  5:29 

And where were our hardest hit areas for our service territory?

Chris Stephens  5:33 

Our hardest hit areas were in the western portion of Newnan and Coweta County. The storm came through and it came across Heard County, through Coweta County and into Fayette County. So, we had damage across our entire system but certainly the significant impact to our system was certainly just west of Newnan and western Coweta County along Smokey Road and LaGrange Street and those areas. And, you know, we didn’t see the number of consumers that we would normally have in a storm of that nature. It was around 6 or 7,000 we had off, but the amount of magnitude that we had with an E-F 4 tornado coming through, the damage itself was just, you know, devastating. And, you know, typically, a storm like this last year with kind of similar straight line winds, well, we had 35,000 members out and 70 broke poles, and you know, we had 6 or 7,000 members off with 135 broke poles. And so it was, you know, I’ve seen, we have seen a lot of damage here on our system from tornadoes, but nothing of this magnitude of an E-F four.

Rachel Camp  6:43 

Okay, and you mentioned broken poles. So I think it’s important that maybe we talk a little bit about the process of changing out those broken poles and why it might take so long and why our members might be waiting a little bit longer to get power on. So, what is the process like for that, Chris? Can you walk us through it?

Chris Stephens  7:03 

Sure, and I think the first thing you have to understand in the restoration process in general is, yeah, we start at our substations. And really, we have to get the main feeder lines up and running. Because until we get the main, what we call our backbone, backbone restored, we cannot begin to restore the taps into the subdivisions and so forth. And so, what you’ll see is one of the poles that’s broken on our main line, or our backbone can take anywhere around four hours. And you know, it’s in this storm, particularly, you know, in some of the areas, we were having a hand dig, because we couldn’t just dig because of gas lines or communication lines, and certainly didn’t want to create another hazard. And so it, it’s very time consuming to build those structures, you think about, you know, 135 structures that were replaced during this event, as a matter of just over four days, you know, would take months normally to build under a normal construction schedule. And so, as you began to get your main lines back on, then you can begin to work on your, your lateral taps. But again, some of the poles that you replace, took you four hours to restore a couple of 100 people, you know, we may be replacing a pole that only serves one member, and it still takes the same amount of time. So, it’s very labor intensive. And, and that’s why it takes a while when you get into these into these situations to restore service to your members.

Rachel Camp  8:33 

Right? Well, how long did the restoration process actually take before for this storm before, you know we got our members on at least those that could receive power?

Chris Stephens  8:45 

Yeah, so the storm hit again early on a Friday morning around midnight, and we had we mobilized crews immediately. So, we had crews out, you know, restoring service as of two o’clock in that morning. And so, in the end, we brought in our additional crews, contractors and our sister cooperatives came in on Friday and worked with us, and we were able to restore service by mid Monday afternoon around 5pm to all members who could receive service at that time. And, you know, talking about the process of restoration of service, you have to begin on your main line feeders. And you have to get those, you know, activated and restored before you can begin to work on your lateral taps in your subdivisions and your individual consumers. And it is a process and it takes time, and with the amount of devastation from this tornado, and the amount of trees and just getting access to your facilities was very challenging. So, the right-away crews are very critical in that process. And you have to have them out in front of you because they actually basically clear your path so you can get access to your facility, so your linemen can begin to restore that service. So that’s, you know, that’s one of the primary things you have to do, and I think you see, and a lot of people saw who saw the extent of the damage is that just transportation in general, it was very difficult to, to move around and, and that also creates its own issues when you have a lot of additional traffic and being able to get to those facilities. It adds to the time as well. But overall, we were very successful in getting our crews and getting them mobilized, and you know, sticking to our process, and making sure we restored the main feeders and restored as many people as we could as quickly and safely as we could before we begin to work on the lateral taps.

Rachel Camp  10:47 

Okay, so Chris, during the restoration efforts, what really is going on behind the scenes that our members don’t see, maybe they’re not aware of, and can you speak more about the process?

Chris Stephens  10:59 

Sure, typically, most storms that we know of, and you know, major storms that are moving in the area, we have an emergency response plan in place, and we’ll activate the Emergency Response Plan ahead of the event. We may be lining up additional crews to come in, lining up food, lining up lodging. And in a tornado of this event, we actually activated the Emergency Response Plan, but it was not until the next day. It isn’t, it didn’t really create much of a delay in our restoration efforts. But it just takes a lot of people in managing the aspect of what really goes into making us successful and really making the people in the field successful. And you know, whether it’s getting the materials scheduled to be delivered, whether it’s the lodging that’s required for your out of town crews that are coming in to assist, and certainly the meals are one of the most critical elements when you have your people not only inside your office, but certainly outside working the long hours and the amount of labor that’s involved. You know, you want to make sure they have a hearty meal so that they can continue those restoration efforts. And so, we’re fortunate, you know, really to be in the community we’re in and have some of the support services around us. You know, the local hotels, some of the local restaurants, one of the ones in Fayette County, Hannah Brothers has really been a great asset for us and being able to help us in providing those meals on short notice. And but it’s just a lot of moving parts that are really happening behind the scenes. And it takes a lot of people to make that happen and doing this in such a short notice under these circumstances, you know, it’s something that we actually practice. We actually review our Emergency Response Plan regularly. So, it’s something that we’re prepared but something you just hopefully you never have to exercise. But when you do, you can see how the planning, you know, pays off and how successful we were. And, you know, as soon as the sun came up, and we realized the significance of the damage and we met as a staff and began to mobilize crews, by midafternoon, we had an additional 100-150 personnel in here assisting us with the storm, and that’s a result of our relationships and our mutual aid agreements with the other agencies.

Rachel Camp  13:25 

Yes, and I think it’s important that we touch on mutual aid agreements, and maybe let our members know why they would have seen so many different trucks around you know, maybe Snapping Shoals and Carroll EMC and Diverse Power. So, can you just kind of touch on the details behind how we have that set up?

Chris Stephens  13:46 

Sure, so Georgia EMC is our statewide association, and so what we have developed over the years, is a mutual aid agreement. So, we have an agreement where we can go and work and we have set rates with those crews, you know, and know what their equipment will cost. And so we understand that, but we just have a mutual agreement between each other, that we come to each other’s aid, given the fact that, you know, they don’t have significant damage to their service areas, they’re quick to respond. We’ll go and help, and they’ll come and help us in return. And it’s just a great, great relationship. And you can see how we were able to quickly respond in a situation such as this, and we were able to get so many additional resources in here in such a short period of time. And it’s quite amazing because, again, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of behind the scenes things that are happening to make this happen. And then one of the other big components of this is that you got to think about lodging, you got to think about food, you got to think about materials. There’s a lot that goes into these, and again with this storm, we do keep a storm supply of materials, but when you have 135 broken poles, you certainly have to have those relationships with your vendors and so forth to make sure that you can depend on them and you can get materials. This storm hit on an early on a Friday morning around midnight, so we were having to receive materials across the weekend. Even on Sunday night, they were delivering materials to make sure that we had the materials necessary to restore, you know, our system and our restoration efforts. So, you know, and that’s all goes into the agreements we have set up with not only our vendors, but also with our other co-ops.

Rachel Camp  15:34 

Okay, and is there anything else that you’d like our members know about our efforts with this storm?

Chris Stephens  15:41 

You know, the thing that I want to really comment on, and I think is just the devastation to our community, it’s somewhat surreal. For someone who grew up in this community and to see the landscape change forever.. But the fortunate thing is, and I think we see is how technology and early warning systems really work to find that no one got, you know, fatally injured from this storm is just incredible. And, but to see the response, not only from the electric utilities, but the community as a whole, is how they came together and to rebuild, and we will rebuild. It’s just been amazing to watch. And I can’t be prouder of our employees and our linemen and all of the folks who came to assist us. You know, working 18-20 hour days to help, you know, get the system back on and restored, with no injuries. I can’t be more proud of those guys and the efforts to call and come in in the middle of the night and work continuously until they can restore service to everyone that they could. It’s just amazing to watch. And I’m just proud of them, and everybody that supported them. And what we saw also during the storm is the outpouring of support from the community. You know, not only did this storm, I mean, it certainly impacted a significant number of our members and just citizens and other community, but it also impacted our employees. We had a number of employees who were directly affected by this. And, you know, the amazing thing is, is they made sure everything was taken care of. But then they responded to helping others. And that’s quite amazing. When you, these events, what you see is the greatness and people and it comes out, and the overwhelming support, and that’s just a true representation of the character of the employees we have. And I think you saw that all around the community. And so that is something I’m really proud of.

Rachel Camp  17:57 

I couldn’t agree more. We’re Newnan strong.

Chris Stephens  18:01 

Absolutely.

Rachel Camp  18:03 

Okay, Chris, well, thank you so much for being with us today. I hope that we have another chance to interview you soon.

Chris Stephens  18:09 

All right. Thank you, Rachel.

Rachel Camp  18:11 

To learn more information about your cooperative and the programs we offer, be sure to visit our website at www.utility.org, and if you have any questions or feedback about today’s segment, drop us a comment on Facebook at facebook.com forward slash Coweta-Fayette EMC or tweet us at CoFayEMC. And lastly, don’t forget to subscribe to in the loop wherever you listen to your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.