For 4-County Electric Power Association, working in response to Hurricane Michael on the Florida panhandle has meant living out of a tent city.
“It’s basically just a big old white tent,” said team leader Time Adkins “You can hold up to 300 men in each tent they’ve placed out there. The place where we sleep is lined with cots, and they’ve provided us with pillows and blankets.
“There’s an 18-wheeler out there with about 12 showers in it,” he added. “We all sort of have to fight for who goes first.”
Adkins, who is from Columbus, said work to assist the West Florida Electric Cooperative runs from sunup to sundown, with only devastation to look at on the trip from their tent just east of Marianna, Florida, to where the crew is working in Blountstown, Florida.
It’s not the first storm recovery trip for the crew, Adkins said, but it is the worst.
“This one takes the cake,” Adkins said. “It takes us 25 minutes to get to where we’re working, and it’s just broken poles the entire way we’re driving.
“It was just overwhelming,” he later added. “You look at it and you wonder how in the world it’s going to get fixed. Just by being diligent and steady, and all the work they’ve got coming in and the eagerness of the linemen who want to help somebody — it’s a very American kind of thing. We’re all joining in to help each other.”
Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle with 155 mile-per-hour winds last week and has killed at least 33 people, according to a USA Today report.
Adkins said work is ongoing, and the 4-County crew, which is made of workers from around the Golden Triangle, will likely spend about a week-and-a-half in Florida.
Most of the crew’s work has focused on restoring main feeder lines, Adkins said.
“You have to get all the main feeder lines back up before you can do the smaller things,” he said. “Until they’re up, anything else is not gonna do much good. It’s (Wednesday) our third day down here and we’ve probably put up about five miles of line. We still haven’t turned on power yet because the substation doesn’t have any power.”
Starkville Utilities Department also sent a five-man crew to Tallahassee. Its members returned to Starkville on Wednesday afternoon.
David Leal, a general foreman with the department, said the crew worked with a “bird dog,” who was a worker with Tallahassee Utilities who led the team and showed them where power lines needed to be restored.
“I was supposed to make sure the line was dead,” he said. “We tested to make sure it’s not hot, then grounded it and went to work. After we got through working, I had to call that bird dog back to let him know the line was clear, and he came back to throw the switch.”
About 90 percent of Tallahassee Utilities’ customers were without power when the SUD crew arrived on Thursday, Leal said. When they left, that percentage had dropped to about 5 percent.
Leal deployed to assist with Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in 2005. The damage in Tallahassee wasn’t as severe but he said that was simply a matter of location.
“I’ve been on Katrina, and that was worse than what I saw personally,” he said. “But I imagine if I went to Mexico Beach (near Hurricane Michael’s landfall location) that would be worse than what I saw with Katrina. They had infrastructure wiped out, so they have to do a total rebuild — period.”
Local firefighters respond
Four Starkville Fire Department firefighters deployed to Florida to help with search and rescue efforts with a Mississippi task force.
Lt. Justin Edwards said the team staged in Mobile, Alabama, the night of Oct. 9, then went to Niceville, Florida. The team then deployed to Panama City on Oct. 11.
“We were looking for people who could have been trapped in their homes, and any medical conditions someone might have had,” he said. “Then we could call the EMS we were stationed with down there.
“We did find some people that needed to be relocated to move to a better location,” he added. “The Mississippi group found a young lady who was pregnant and needed to be relocated.”
Sgt. Matt Schober said the task force’s multidisciplinary training allowed it to switch from swift water rescue, as originally planned, to aiding in search and rescue. He said the team’s small size, relative to some “huge” federal teams, allows it to mobilize and move around quickly.
While in Florida, the task force has lived out of a “boo” — which Schober said is a large tent with air conditioning — in a mall parking lot.
“We were basically camping out there,” he said. “We were out there with Task Force 5 from Florida and 1 from Louisiana. We shared the same big area. They were pretty good about sharing stuff with us if we needed it and vice versa.”
Edwards added they deployed to assist in recovery efforts after Hurricane Irma last year. Michael’s damage, he said, is “much worse.”
Schober said the deployment was his first for a major storm. He said the scope of the damage was shocking.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the scale, just how much was gone or broken or tore up,” he said. “They’re having to replace everything, and those other crews were working to get everything back out.”
Despite that, Edwards said, a lot of the residents were welcoming to the team.
“They were very appreciative of us coming down,” he said. “A lot of the places we went, we were the first responders they had seen. Even as bad off as they were with no power, no electricity, not knowing when that would come back, they were giving us water. They were still in good spirits.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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