It was Macon County’s loyalty to each other that contributed greatly to our recovery after the tornado touched down here on February 5, 2008.The citizens had a selfless love that made them put other’s needs and well being first. Tri County Electric stayed positive, which was the only way to get through this ordeal, and worked hard to restore electricity to our devastated community. I for one remember their hard work and I would like to tell the electric company’s story to make sure no one ever forgets what they did for us seven years ago.
“On February 6, at 2:00 a.m. the tornadoes had moved out of the area leaving behind a devastated landscape in the cold darkness. No one could imagine how bad it was until sunrise the following morning. But your friends at Tri County Electric were already on the job, implementing their emergency response plan. Through the hard work of their employees along with businesses, contractors, members, family and friends, they had the system rebuilt to the extent that it could be used in just three days.”
It’s still hard to believe what happened here seven years ago, and when I talked with Paul Thompson, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Tri County Electric, last week he said he was watching the weather on television like everybody else the night the massive twister wrecked havoc across Macon County. With the eerie orange glow from Columbia Gulf off in the distance, Paul stepped out on his driveway and glanced out across Highway 52. In chilling detail, he recalls a lightning strike that lit everything up and he spotted this massive black cloud moving between houses, which he realized in disbelief was actually the twister barreling toward Lafayette with no regard for anything that got in its’ way.
Headed into work on Highway 52, he was stopped around the White Road intersection with poles across the road and backed up traffic. He circled through Key Road and finally made it to the intersection at Brattontown and the first thing he saw was Tri County’s trucks near the church.
“Danny Evetts was working and he recognized my vehicle when he saw me coming toward the intersection,” said Thompson. “He yelled to someone who was directing traffic to let me go and they motioned me on through. When I reached the office I immeidately called Tri County’s Operation Superintendent Jerry Wilmore. When he answered his cell phone I ask ‘are you aware of how bad the storm is?’ and he simply said ‘yes, I’m working on it’.”
Superintendent Wilmore had already started calling the linemen and one of them was Jerry Driver, whose parents’ home had been destroyed. Jerry and some other linemen helped dig through the rubble until they reached his parents in the basement and got them out, thankfully both uninjured. Then they all came to work.
Thompson contacted Tri County Director of Engineering Jim Beecham and ask him to come in that Lafayette had a terrible situation and Tri County was implementing their disaster response plan. “Jim lives in the subdivision located near the Golf Course and there was so much destruction in that area that he had to walk out,” continued Thompson. “I sent someone to pick him up, but somehow in all the confusion they missed each other, so Jim started walking to Tri County. However, some good samaritan picked him up and brought him to work.”
After Beecham got there, the men started trying to assess the damage using the outage management system, where they can ping all the meters and see what responds. In just a short amount of time they knew there were 26,000 outages out of around 51,000 members. Tri County knew they had a horrible problem.
While they were all still in shock over the tragedy that had just hit our hometown, they quickly implemented the disaster plan. The electric cooperativec knew they had transmission structures down, had sub stations out, and 26,000 members without electricity, so they started putting together their resources by calling neighboring co-ops and contacting contractors to try and get man power here.They also started assessing their inventory to see what they had, and then made contact with their vendors request transformers and poles. “We were going to need a lot of equipment and alot of help,” said Paul.
Tri County’s disaster plan included not only arranging to get assistance here and the materials needed, but also feeding and housing all the workers. They had to start making arrangements because they couldn’t let anyone work around the clock, so they ended up letting them work 16 hour shifts before they were pulled off to rest.
“We’ve got 144 employees at Tri County,” said Thompson, “and every employee worked during the tornado recovery in some capacity. Employees family members also volunteered their time during the days following the storm.”
The reason Tri County was able to restore power to everybody that could use it in a three day period was the investment they had made in their outage management system. “Tri County has a mapping system and we have mapped all of our poles. So the company has a geographic location, latitude & longitude which tells us exactly where every single pole we have is, along with everything about it. Then the outage management system tells us within 30 seconds if any of the 52,000 plus meters has power to it.”
Tri County had to get the transmission towers back up, so they could get the power to substations and then they started getting the power back to the members. Being one of the first responders, Tri County employees saw everything, the good and the bad. They were in the middle of it all assisting if they were needed or getting the lines out of the way so emergency crews could get in to the hard hit areas.
Tri County held daily meetings to assess the restoration effort. They held conference calls with state wide organizations to request assistance. They would discuss the plans for the next day and what the next steps would be in getting the power back on and the system rebuilt.
“We probably had eight to ten people just working on the data coming in alone,” said Thompson. The disaster plan worked because everybody knew what their role was and they did it.”
It was a hard time for Tri County Electric witnessing first hand the folks suffering through the tornado aftermath and I’m sure this tragedy left wounds that took a long time to heal. It was a sad time for Macon County and I want to commend the electric company for seeing us through this heartbreaking ordeal.
“In the midst of destruction caused by the tornado we were also able to see our community at its very best,” added Thompson. “Neighbors helping neighbors was the theme throughout Macon and Trousdale Counties.”
“I will always be proud to be a part of an organization whose employees are truly committed to their jobs. Many focused on restoring power while they or their families lost everything in the tornado. The strength and compassion of Tri County Electric employees is something I will remember the rest of my life.”