As part of a statewide municipal mutual aid agreement, on October 12 a crew from the Town of Front Royal’s Energy Services Department embarked to assist City of Martinsville crews in recovery work in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
That Town Energy Department crew included Line Crew Supervisor, Carey Saffelle, along with three Line Technicians, Alan Bell, Preston Toms and Hunter Partlowe. Their boss, Front Royal Energy Services Director David Jenkins explained the advent of their mission.
“The Town of Front Royal, along with many other municipalities in Virginia, is part of a Mutual Aid Agreement for Emergency Assistance. These municipalities have agreed to furnish personnel, equipment, supplies and materials in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency that affects or causes damage to their electrical systems,” Jenkins said.
As Michael began strengthening toward a U.S. landfall on a northern track toward the Florida Panhandle it became apparent Virginia might be impacted. According to Jenkins, “Beginning on Tuesday, October 9th, the heads of each municipality’s electric department began holding daily conference calls to discuss the possible threat Hurricane Michael would pose; who would be affected; and which municipalities would be available to send aid should it be needed.”
On Friday morning, October 12th, Jenkins received the call that Martinsville, Virginia was in need of assistance. Consequently, Saffelle, Bell, Partlowe and Toms began the 4-hour trip south with two bucket trucks, a line truck and a pick-up truck. Their mission was to assist in repairing the electrical infrastructure that had been devastated by Michael’s path northward through Martinsville.
What, we wondered, would they find when they arrived.
Michael 2018 was one of the strongest and most destructive hurricanes to hit the U.S. by several measurement criteria, including atmospheric pressure (3rd behind the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and Camille in 1969) and maximum sustained winds (2nd strongest since Andrew in 1992 and 4th strongest ever measured). Michael 2018 was also the strongest storm ever to make landfall on the Florida Panhandle on the western Gulf side of the state.
Approaching the Florida panhandle peak winds were measured at 155 mph, with 13 to 18-foot storm surges adding to the coastal devastation. Michael made landfall October 10 as a Category 4 storm (131-155 mph) with winds just 7 mph under a Category 5 designation. As it traveled inland on a northeasterly path it weakened to a tropical storm designation traveling across Georgia, the Carolinas and portions of Virginia.
The storm regained some strength off the mid-Atlantic coast, being classified as an extratropical cyclone on October 12, and crossed the Atlantic impacting the Spanish-Portugal Iberian Peninsula before dissipating on October 16.
Back on this side of the Atlantic, by October 28 at least 60 deaths had been attributed to the storm, including 45 in the United States and 15 in Central America. In Florida great swaths of the towns of Mexico Beach and Panama City looked as is flattened by a nuclear explosion.
Financially Michael was also catastrophic, with a minimum estimate of $11.28 billion in damages, including $100 million in economic losses in Central America; $6 billion in destroyed U.S. fighter jets at Tyndall Air Force Base; and at least $1.5 billion in insurance claims in the U.S. Reports indicate losses to agriculture and timber in excess of $3.68 billion.
And with high winds and rain come power outages.
According to Front Royal Energy Department Director Jenkins, at the time of his crew’s arrival, seventy-five percent of the 7,500 electrical utility customers in Martinsville were without power. The Front Royal crew was immediately pressed into action.
“They were responsible for repairs over a span of 11 streets and right of ways including the replacement of 12 utility poles and 5 transformers. From the time they left Front Royal on Friday morning, to the time they returned on Tuesday the crew had worked a total of 65 hours,” Jenkins told Royal Examiner.
According to Jenkins, crew Supervisor Carey Saffelle was the only one of the four with previous experience in a disaster aide situation.
Let’s get to work
We asked Saffelle and his crew their impressions of the assignment and what they encountered upon arriving in Martinsville.
“Driving down to Martinsville, as we got within 20 miles, I started seeing Fuse Cut-outs open and tap line poles with ribbon on them, trees across lines and thought to myself here it begins. I got excited, this is what we are trained for this is what gets us going,” crew chief Saffelle said, adding, “When we got to Martinsville, we met the Director and learned how bad their system was. He said, ‘You ready to check into a motel?’ I said, ‘No Sir let’s get to work, you figure that out.’
“Their guys had been working almost 24 hours at that point and we were fresh,” Saffelle said of his and his crew’s “let’s get to work” attitude. And what they faced was a daunting task. We asked crew chief Saffelle how what he encountered compared to past experiences with disaster relief.
“Every Storm has its own characteristics. This Storm was comparable to the Derecho Storm in 2012. Parts of the town were untouched other parts were completely destroyed. Huge trees down that you wouldn’t think would come down, down on lines, roads and houses. One street completely destroyed, the next street not touched. It’s amazing actually. The customers were a mix of excited to see us and very appreciative that we were there, while others were not and upset that they had been out of power for 8, 16 and 24+ hours. It is the same with every natural disaster,” Saffelle observed.
For his crew of three linemen it was a first experience of disaster relief – what was it like for them?
“I was excited to go work storm trouble but, I didn’t know what to expect,” Alan Bell said. “Upon arrival we met the Director at Martinsville and were told the state of their territory after the storm had passed. We got out to the first job and went to work. One location to the next each job had its own challenges with being in an area we had never been before, but it shared similarities to the work we do at home.
“When it was time to come home power had been restored to nearly every customer and the city was looking nothing like when we arrived. It was an excellent experience with accommodations being better then I expected. I feel satisfied and grateful to have been selected to go help restore the system in Martinsville and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again in the future,” Bell concluded.
“My first thought when we arrived was, man oh man, how bad was the storm? Then after seeing how many poles were snapped and utility lines were ripped down, it was BAD,” Preston Toms told us.
“There were very large trees down on roads, lines and even houses. People were thankful for us coming down to help them out. It was an exciting and great opportunity to be able to help Martinsville restore power to their customers,” Toms concluded.
“It was as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Hunter Partlowe added. “There was no real way to prepare for it. It was very long days with long hours. We had a four-man crew and made the best of it. I am glad I got to experience something that bad and help others when the needed it.”
Of his crew’s hectic schedule, Saffelle said, “We arrived in Martinsville Friday at 2 p.m. and started working immediately. There were trees down everywhere; every utility line was on the ground, numerous poles broken of all types. We did what we were trained to do at the best of our ability. They were long days, no sleep, balls-to-the-wall, getting it done. We worked until Saturday morning at 3 a.m.”
Saturday the crew worked from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on Sunday and Monday did 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. shifts.
“We were released Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. to drive back home. I am very proud of my guys – all of them linemen; they stepped up for the Town of Front Royal and aided a destroyed community that was in need of help. It is always a great feeling to help others when in need; it was exciting to help restore power to the citizens of the City of Martinsville VA.,” Crew Chief Saffelle concluded.
Job well done, men – you did your town and its Energy Services Department proud.
Jenkins noted that the Town of Front Royal’s Energy Services Department consists of 15 full-time employees, 8 of which are part of the Line crew. With half of their total man power in Martinsville, the remaining Line Technicians were tasked with maintaining day-to-day operations here at home.
Job well done on the home front as well, for those left to tend to more mundane day-to-day energy department needs.