6 Tips for Utility Crews to Prepare for Hurricane Season



Hurricanes wreak havoc on utilities and their customers with winds in excess of 74mph, bringing with them storm surge flooding, inland flooding and tornadoes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office for Coastal Management, there have been 363 billion-dollar weather disasters since 1980 (as of August 2023), and hurricanes have caused the most damage: over $1.3 trillion total, with an average cost of $22.8 billion per event.

Regardless of whether you are managing a water, wastewater, oil and gas or electric utility, preparations are key to restoring operations quickly while keeping crews safe. We asked three experts to share their best practices.

Chris Helfrich, P.E., serves as Director of Utility Services for the City of Boca Raton, Florida, which provides water and wastewater services to 130,000 residents.

Tracy Vreeland is a Public Relations Specialist for Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s public power and water utility, the state’s largest power provider for approximately 2 million people.

Adrienne Lotto - Senior Vice President of Grid Security, Technical & Operations, for the American Public Power Association (APPA), with responsibility for the organization’s Mutual Aid and Emergency Response program. The public power Mutual Aid Network connects more than 2,000 organizations to get or give help to other utilities and coordinate with the authorities during widespread power outages.

1. Review emergency response plans (ERPs)

telephone poles knocked down on ground hurricaneBefore hurricane season begins all three experts recommended utilities review the emergency response plans, which describes the strategies, resources, plans and procedures to respond to an incident, property, or the environment.

“It's a good time ahead of any event to dust off plans and even do a quick tabletop read-through of what those plans say,” says Lotto. “Oftentimes there are new faces. You want to make sure that you reach out to first responders in your town, and regionally, to get to know the people involved.”

Lotto adds that the review should not be just a management exercise. “You want to understand what decisions would be made on the ground and how that information is communicated up and what decisions will be made at the management level,” she says. “The goal is to minimize any gaps to make quick, risk-informed decision making so you can restore customer service as soon as possible.”

Once a year, the Boca Raton water utility will conduct a four or five-hour hurricane desktop simulation, reviewing the plan down to the individuals who are driving the trucks.

According to Lotto, APPA also makes exercises available to public power utilities at the regional and national level.

2. Prepare backup generators and supplies

Hurricanes can knock out power to key elements of a water utility including lift stations and wells. According to Helfrich, prior to the storm crews will set up gas-powered generators, strap them down and run them during the hurricane to ensure they still have power, even if there is an outage. “We look at all of our chemical and fuel supplies in advance of the season and seven to 10 days in advance of a storm we will have them all topped off,” says Helfrich. They have enough supplies on hand to run for 30 days.

At Santee Cooper backup generators power the utility’s service centers and Storm Center, from where crews will be dispatched. “Line crews will have trucks stocked with everything they need for quick, safe power restoration,” says Vreeland.

3. Ensure food and housing needs are met

Well-fed and rested crews will perform better. In Boca Raton, 24 hours before a storm is expected to hit, the water utility’s emergency response team, comprised of approximately 20 employees, reports to the headquarters to ride out the storm, while everyone else goes home until the storm passes. “We have a kitchen and a well-stocked freezer to feed our people,” says Helfrich.

4. Ensure reliable communications

Communications technology ensures that crews can receive and send messages about local conditions, road closures and other important information. According to Lotto, mutual assistance crews are increasingly turning to satellite phones, which have better coverage in remote locations with weak or non-existent cellular connections. The Boca Raton utility primarily relies on radio communication.

Vreeland says Santee Cooper uses all communications vehicles “during blue-sky-days as well as during storm periods.” These include a 900 MHZ radio system with various talk groups segmented between work areas, switching channels for circuit modifications (switching), and talk-around groups for general details related to jobs which may not need to be broadcast over the entire area, as well as cell phones.  “All official switching or energization activities are handled over the radio system so everyone within an area is aware,” she adds. Satellite phones may also be used during hurricanes. Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) ensures priority calling if needed.  “Over the past number of years, we experienced many storms and relied primarily upon the radio system, using cell phones as needed,” says Vreeland.

Following several storms in 2019, Santee Cooper added a “weather alert” feature to its Motorola radio system which alerts employees whenever a tornado warning has been issued for their area.

5. Aim for accurate and timely damage assessment

Accurate and timely assessment of damage helps crews get service restored faster, but safety is of utmost importance. Crews cannot be sent into unsafe conditions, whether that is flood water or high winds.

“Our primary nerve center is our SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system which is used to monitor all system disturbances,” says Santee Cooper’s Vreeland. “When loss of power occurs, we receive notification from our AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) system. This information is then used to create an OMS ticket which requires field follow-up. A damage assessment application collects circuit related damages from the field and reports back to our storm center.”

The Boca Raton water utility relies on video cameras to keep eyes on its assets. After winds recede, the utility will send out crews to assess critical assets and respond to customer issues.

Drones equipped with cameras are increasingly being used by Santee Cooper to assess damage, especially in areas that may be difficult to reach. The Boca Raton water utility will occasionally request drone footage from either law enforcement or their power provider when needed.Lineworker boom truck working on telephone lines

6. Pre-plan how you will work with mutual assistance crews

Mutual assistance exists to help utilities respond and recover from emergencies by sharing resources. The American Public Power Association leads the mutual aid program for public power utilities, while Edison Electric Institute partners with investor-owned electric companies.  Water and Wastewater Agency Response Networks (WARNs) provide the same support for water utilities. Similar programs are available for gas utilities.

Lotto recommends public power utilities request mutual aid as early as possible, preferably three to five days before the storm hits, so crews can get into position. “This is key in terms of being able to restore quickly,” she says.

APPA recently developed and worked with its mutual aid committee on a utility crew coordination checklist to improve communication between requesting and responding utilities. It answers questions about lodging for crews, meals, fuel supplies, as well as special equipment needs, training and the voltage they will be working on. “The purpose is to get as much information in the hands of the crews prior to their arrival,” says Lotto.

Santee Cooper uses an onboarding video to familiarize mutual aid crews with their operations. They will also send an employee to act as a “bird dog” to help mutual assistance crews navigate the area.

“Safety talks for mutual aid crews are key so that crews understand the types of lines they are working on, as well as potential hazards and anything unique to the utility,” says Lotto. “You also want an ID, for all crews that are responding to identify themselves to law enforcement.”


Preparations help utilities keep crews safe and productive while restoring service as quickly as possible after a hurricane. We hope you found these tips helpful. While no one wants a hurricane, every hurricane you deal with or drill you conduct provides an opportunity to collect lessons learned and focus on continuous improvement.

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