Lessons from the derecho

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — It’s a memory that Allen Staggers won’t soon forget. He works in communications at First Energy, the parent company of Mon Power and Potomac Edison. He was at home in Fairmont on the evening of June 29, 2012 when the state came to a near stand-still.

“I saw the lights blink before the storm ever reached our area. That kind of gave me a clue, cause I know what makes the lights blink, that something was going on with our transmission system,” remembered Staggers. “Of course, little did I know at that time that we were in the very beginning stages of the worst storm in the company’s history.”

The 2012 derecho was like nothing anyone had ever experienced. Winds gusted at over 70 miles per hours, torrential downpours and trees toppled like toothpicks. Once the storm was over — 350,000 First Energy customers were without power. For some it would remain that way for more than two weeks.

Staggers said they immediately got to work with the crews on hand but had to call in 4,000 more workers from other areas to help restore service. It wasn’t just repairing a few lines or a couple of downed poles.

“We replaced more than 1,100 poles, over 130 miles of wire. It was a huge effort and it was a storm that any of us who worked will never forget,” stressed Staggers.

But it wasn’t just the derecho that impacted restoration time. Several other major storms ripped through West Virginia in the days after the derecho, setting work back by days.

“So in addition to the 350,000 (customers) that were initially knocked out with the derecho, another 170,000 customers, many of them the same customers that were affected by the derecho, were also knocked out of power in thunderstorms later that week,” explained Staggers.

He said the derecho taught the company some very valuable lesson, especially when it came to cooperation with groups like the West Virginia National Guard and state DOH. First Energy worked with both in the wake of the storm to come up with a plan of attack in case something like the derecho happens again.

Staggers said possibly the biggest change came about with the state Public Service Commission’s investigation into right of way maintenance. The PSC put a plan together. It was approved earlier this year.

“Every section of right of way in the company’s service territory in West Virginia will be maintained or cut within a five year period. Then they’re looking at a four-year cycle after that,” according to Staggers.

He said if another derecho were to hit the state today, First Energy would be in a much better position to handle the aftermath.

“We’ve made changes to our storm restoration process, how we dispatch crews, how we do trouble shooting and damage assessment. All part of what we do now is based on lessons we learned from two years ago,” stressed Staggers.

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