Incident Prevention Magazine

Kevin Ripplinger and Will Schnyer, CUSP

St. Thomas Storm Restoration: Lessons Learned

Late last year, two powerful hurricanes – Irma and Maria – carved their way across the Virgin Islands and nearby Puerto Rico before turning north. Both hurricanes left behind substantial damage to the region, including debris, flooding, communication outages, power outages, and water and food shortages. As the first deployed line crews to arrive in the region, Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) linemen were tasked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair roughly 25 miles of 34.5-kV transmission lines on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In the electric utility business, it is common knowledge that energy recovery after a natural disaster can be complicated due to physical damage to the electric system and surrounding land as well as unknown hazards. Accordingly, throughout the restoration effort on St. Thomas, WAPA crews didn’t always know what they faced or the extent of the damage until after it was thoroughly evaluated. Worksite tailgate meetings and job briefings were often held several times a day because issues that affected both the scope of work and the safety of employees had to be mitigated before continuing the work.

WAPA linemen encountered numerous hazards while working to restore power on St. Thomas, including:

  • Hazardous driving conditions due to narrow and slippery roadways, and driving on the left side of the road.
  • No power to traffic lights.
  • Slips and falls due to steep and slippery work locations.
  • Falling objects, such as debris, tree limbs and damaged utility poles.
  • Electrical hazards from generators back-fed into the power grid.
  • Electrical hazards from re-energized circuits.
  • Falls from height.
  • Fatigue from working extended shifts.
  • Heat exhaustion.
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