Utility line workers were America’s unsung heroes this Labor Day

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Local and regional utility line workers are vital to community resilience and should be recognized as the emergency responders they are.  That may be one of the major take-aways from one of the nation’s most recent devastating storms, as hundreds of thousands of Americans are still without electricity one week after Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana.

“We’ve never seen anything this large. Even with Katrina, the damage was extended to multiple states. With Ida, nearly all of the damage is here in Louisiana,” said Joe Book, senior manager of distribution engineering for Entergy in Louisiana.  The utility posted a graphic on social media depicting the scale of infrastructure damage by comparing the numbers of damaged utility poles to past storms:

As of 10:00 AM on Labor Day, around 430,000 customers in Louisiana were without power, despite a herculean effort on the part of Entergy and its fellow utility contractors coming in from 41 states to assist with more than 25,000 workers spending 16 hours a day in the sweltering heat (the heat index has been over 100 degrees every day).

A popular meme circulating on social media captured the sentiment of many Louisiana residents who appreciate these unsung heroes. The meme said: “One crew of electrical linemen are worth more than all the offensive and defensive linemen in the NFL!”  These people clearly recognize that while sports teams might be a source of entertainment, inspiration, and comradery, they cannot contribute to the survival of our modern civilization like those who keep the electricity flowing.

Recognizing the importance of electricity to every one of the nation’s 16 critical infrastructures and the critical role played by those who restore it, last year U.S. Senator John Kennedy and U.S. Representative Clay Higgins, both from Louisiana, introduced a simple, single-paged bill that would officially designate utility line technicians as “emergency response providers.”  Since the bill made no progress in 2020, Senator Kennedy re-introduced it as the “Lineman Legacy Act” in February 2021 where it was referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Electric utility workers responding to Hurricane Ida would have benefited from this legislation having become law, not just because of the proper recognition it affords them, but also for a functional purpose – to expedite their ability to respond in emergencies and to access disaster areas.  Currently, electric utilities must generate “Letter of Access/Invitation” documentation for their employees to provide to law enforcement or other jurisdictional authorities to verify their affiliation with the company and their need for freedom of access to during a crisis. Unfortunately, this letter of access has not been sufficient for some utility workers to gain access to roadways blocked by law enforcement in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

Besides the challenges associated with running regional logistics to support power restoration, the high temperatures and austere work environment, and the dangers associated with high voltage electrical work, utility workers responding to Hurricane Ida face another challenge common to all emergency responders – hostile people.  On Tuesday, less than 48 hours after New Orleans lost power, one of the state’s largest electric utilities had its contracted food vendor carjacked at gunpoint in the city.  Fortunately, a local grocery store manager donated food for the more than 140 utility workers.

That same day, as utility workers contacted law enforcement in the greater New Orleans area for security details to escort them during damage assessments of grid infrastructure, the cops responded that they were already too overwhelmed with calls of carjacking and looting.  In some cases, criminals were stealing vehicles just to sleep in them while running the air conditioning. Less violent offenders were approaching slowly moving vehicles stopping at unlit road intersections and siphoning out gasoline as these vehicles crept forward in traffic.

At one point during the week, many utility workers were forced to suspend operations outside of New Orleans for nearly an entire day so that utility trucks and their crews could instead be directed to the city for a show of presence during a visit by President Joe Biden. This is unfortunately an example of when federal officials are less than helpful to local emergency efforts.  Some of these utility workers, clearly frustrated by this “dog and pony show,” turned their backs on the presidential motorcade.

During his visit, Biden noted the destruction,  “I walk through the backyards here —  so many telephone lines are down, so many telephone poles are down, so many of the — of the way in which we transmit energy is lost because of the old wooden telephone pole,” he said.  “We know for a fact if they’re underground, they are secure. It costs more money. We’ve got to not just build back to what it was with the same old poles up. We got to build back better. We got to build back more resiliently.”

The President is correct that burying electric distribution infrastructure would make it more resilient to weather and utilities that provide natural gas, fiber communications, and water do this already. But the President’s massive infrastructure bill contains little towards improving this critical infrastructure.

One of our nation’s most credible long-time advocates for grid security, Ambassador Henry F. Cooper,  recently noted that the proposed 2,700-page, $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Bill “offers little help for improving the existing Distribution Grid that actually delivers electricity to support America’s citizens, their homes and vital supporting critical infrastructure — water-wastewater, hospitals, emergency management, essential communications, etc.”  As Ambassador Cooper argues “Protecting the Grid is Affordable” if President Biden and the Congress prioritize real infrastructure fixes.

If the President and the rest of our elected officials are serious about electric grid resiliency, they can start by recognizing the people who maintain and restore the grid as emergency response providers and commit to getting them the resources they need to protect the grid from all hazards.

It’s time to recognize those who labor to keep the lights on in America.

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