by Kimberly Blair
When Hurricane Michael’s powerful winds whipped across the eastern Florida Panhandle, very little standing in its path could stand up to the near Category 5 force.
Trees snapped, were flattened or left leafless and leaning. And similar to trees, thousands of power poles splintered or toppled, dragging down miles of power lines with them.
Power poles are the backbone of Gulf Power’s electrical grid. While there are other important parts to the power grid, poles have become one of the defining images and milestones of the story of Hurricane Michael’s destructive force and unprecedented restoration.
“Immediately after the storm, when looking around and seeing very few poles left standing was overwhelming and devastating,” said Sandy Sims, Gulf Power’s Eastern District general manager.
From the scope of damage, it was clear that the power grid in the eastern part of the Florida Panhandle would be a rebuild. It wasn’t going to simply involve straightening poles and repairing equipment before power could be restored to customers so they could begin their road to recovery.
Immediately after Michael spun out of the Panhandle leaving roadways impassable with downed trees and power poles in Bay County and other hard-hit areas, Gulf Power crews were already rolling in to begin the restoration process.
“Gulf Power crews were already working their way south down State Highway 77 through Lynn Haven cutting broken poles, pushing them over the curb and removing the downed lines to make way for caravans of utility workers, first responders and semis laden with power poles, transformers and wires to roll into the devastated areas,” said Kimberly Blair, Gulf Power spokesperson. “It was an amazing sight to see them already working even as Michael was laying waste to areas northeast of Panama City.”
Until Michael, 2004’s Hurricane Ivan served as a benchmark on preparing for another major hurricane. Ivan devastated the Pensacola area, and it took 3,300 power poles to repair the power system. Prior to Michael entering the Gulf of Mexico, a stockpile of 3,000 poles were sent to sites from Pensacola to Panama City.
When Michael spun up to a strong Category 4, the projection for the number of poles that would be needed to rebuild the system quickly ticked up to 7,000, a nearly precise estimate. It took 6,823 to rebuild the power system.
When Gulf Power’s logistic team realized its main pole supplier was in Michael’s path, they reached out to other pole suppliers to the west of the storm in Alabama and Mississippi to make sure they’d be ready to help fill the need. Trucks laden with poles joined the first wave of disaster responders that converged on the eastern Panhandle. The main supplier was also able to deliver more than 1,000 poles even though it lost power and suffered damage.
“When the large deliveries of poles began arriving so quickly — it was the first sign that we could rebuild in a matter of weeks, and not months,” Sims said. “It made the restoration process seem manageable and possible.”
As poles began rolling in around the clock, Gulf Power had a team coordinating the massive effort. Poles were sent to staging sites around the area to be easily accessible to crews who were working 24/7.
“Immediately after Michael’s passing, crews were already installing new poles, a site that buoyed our customers hopes,” said Blair. “I was on the ground that first day with our crews and saw many people giving them the thumbs-up and telling them ‘thank you.’”
Once large numbers of poles were being set down the main thoroughfares of the community, it was part of returning to normalcy — traffic signals could begin operation, lift stations and water plants could resume.
“Each night when our construction team leaders reported in, the number of poles set quickly became a benchmark measure of our success,” Sims said. “It was almost a friendly competition among our construction teams.”
By Oct. 23, and 13 days after the Michael hit and with 7,500 people working on restoration, a majority of the poles were replaced, and energy was restored to all of the customers’ homes that could take power. Contributing to the quick installation of the poles was the ability to secure five truckloads loaded with 1,000 boxes each of pole foam, a quick-drying concrete, used to install the poles.
“Making sure Gulf Power had an adequate inventory of pole foam was a lesson we learned from Mississippi Power following Katrina,” Blair said. “With every storm, our team hones its storm restoration skills. And Michael will now usurp Ivan as our benchmark for future restorations.”