Gulf Coast Electric Co-ops Brace for Floods, Outages From Hurricane Sally

Electric cooperatives along the Gulf Coast are ready to respond to potentially widespread power outages when Hurricane Sally makes landfall by Wednesday morning, bringing a deluge that could cause historic flooding.

Co-ops in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle are expected to be hit hardest.

Sally is “likely to produce extreme life-threatening flash flooding through Wednesday along, and just inland, of the central Gulf Coast from the western Florida Panhandle to far southwestern Mississippi,” the National Hurricane Center warned Tuesday, adding that “historic flooding is possible.” The National Weather Service predicted the hurricane would dump 10 to 20 inches of rain across the region, with isolated spots receiving up to 30 inches.

Ron Stewart, senior vice president of communications at Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi, said the statewide association has been in constant contact with its member cooperatives and the co-ops are prepared to respond after Sally makes landfall. ECM has also been in contact with co-ops in other states in case outside crews are needed to help restore power.

“You never know how bad a hurricane is actually going to be until it hits, but you’ve got to be prepared,” Stewart said Tuesday. “You can’t be caught blindsided.”

For individual co-ops, getting ready for the hurricane means “making sure your vehicles are gassed up and loaded with the necessary equipment needed to restore power,” Stewart said.

“You also try to get word out to your membership to prepare for outages,” he said. “We’re definitely going to have some. And, it’s not safe to dispatch crews during the storm, so it may take some time to restore power. The vast majority of members understand that—they see what’s happening outside. But it never hurts to remind them.”

Widespread flooding could hamper crews after the hurricane has swept through, Stewart said.

“It’s hard to get crews out and about if we’ve got flooded highways and roads—even if the structures are still there.”

Some Mississippi co-op crews just recently returned home from helping Louisiana co-ops restore power after Hurricane Laura. Louisiana co-ops expect to be largely spared by Sally.

“I think the majority of our co-ops should be in the clear,” said Addie Armato, director of member engagement at the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives. “It’s been a sigh of relief; it really has. Our hearts go out to our neighboring states because this is not easy.”

As they continue with post-Laura restoration efforts, Louisiana co-ops will assess whether they are able to send crews to help co-ops in neighboring states, Armato said.

In Alabama, Baldwin EMC in Summerdale activated its disaster response plan Tuesday and had closed its offices as weather conditions worsened.

“We’re currently responding to outages and will continue to do so, weather permitting,” said Mark Ingram, vice president of corporate services and public relations. “As conditions deteriorate, we’ll pull our employees from the field for their safety. As the storm passes, our crews will be ready to restore power again as safely and quickly as possible.”

The co-op has stockpiled additional supplies, including poles, transformers, wire and other essential equipment.

All 22 Alabama co-ops are keeping a close eye on Sally, said the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives, citing the National Hurricane Center’s forecast of “dangerous storm surge, hurricane-force winds and flash flooding.” Alabama co-op crews are returning home from Louisiana after helping Beauregard Electric Cooperative Inc. restore power after Laura.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey closed the state’s beaches Monday and urged coastal residents to evacuate if possible. She said Alabama is “looking at record flooding.” Sally is expected to make landfall near Mobile Bay early Wednesday and move across central and south Alabama.

In Florida, Escambia River Electric Cooperative is preparing for the potential of major damage to its system.

“Our co-op may be significantly affected by high winds and heavy rainfall if Sally continues to intensify,” said CEO Ryan Campbell. “With safety as our top priority, we have activated our emergency response plan in anticipation of the storm. This includes contact with our statewide association to coordinate the arrival of additional utility crews should they be needed.”

The co-op urged its members to remain vigilant and prepare for possible outages.

“EREC has taken all precautionary measures, and our emergency preparedness team has confirmed that all preliminary requirements for the possibility of a major hurricane have been met,” Campbell said.

Erin Kelly is a staff writer at NRECA.