Utility Workers Bring Hope in the Aftermath of Natural Disasters



When disasters strike, utility workers work tirelessly to protect and restore essential services. By bringing power, water and gas back to communities, they offer hope to those impacted by storms, hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters. Unfortunately, this restoration work isn’t often heralded. However, several organizations in the utility industry are working to change that through awards programs designed to recognize these heroes.

Water heroes

Utility workers working on restoring water after natural disasterWater Environmental Federation (WEF) Water Heroes Award recognizes individuals or municipalities that go above and beyond their usual call of duty during an emergency and elevate the status of the water sector industry. According to Greg Woodward, Chairman of the Water Heroes Award committee and Senior Project Manager at Burns & McDonnell, the awards program began in 2012 to honor a group of Louisiana water operators for their service after Hurricane Katrina.

“The awards elevate the fact that the job is extremely important to our communities,” says Woodward. “A large part of our general population doesn’t understand what it takes to maintain a wastewater facility.”

Mount Pleasant Waterworks (MPW) in South Carolina was recently honored with a Water Heroes Award from WEF for its role in restoring water service in Jackson, Mississippi in August 2022. Flooding on the Pearl River caused the failure of the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, the city's largest water treatment facility. More than 160,000 people, along with hospitals, fire stations and schools, were without safe drinking water when the call for assistance went out. 

“I think providing assistance is a rewarding opportunity for our crews,” says Allan Clum, General Manager of MPW. “When I heard that there was a need, we immediately wanted to help.”

MPW was the first utility to respond to the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). They sent a team comprised of two water operators, Graham MacDonald and Raoul Edjoo, and two pump mechanics, Jerrard Pusha and Quinn Tolbert.

According to Clum, MPW is built around the values of involvement and inspiration. “Our team took these values to Jackson and worked with their staff to make a difference,” he says. 

When the MPW crew arrived, they found a utility in need of assistance, lacking proper resources and overworked employees. “Relying on our experience of membrane treatment, we focused our attention in that area of the plant and began assisting in the repairing, cleaning and operation of the ultrafiltration system while advising the various state Federal and State agencies,” he says. Over the 15-day deployment the workers were able to assist in standing up various areas of the facility, doubling production, lifting the boil water advisory, and placing the OB Curtis facility on the road to recovery. Crew members from Mt. Pleasant Waterworks making repairs to the Jackson, Mississippi, water treatment plant. Back in South Carolina, MPW employees helped the response crew with technical questions, secured supplies and supported the workers’ families by helping with meals, childcare and yard work. According to Clum, although they were working long hours under stressful conditions, the response team formed a strong bond and came back with a greater appreciation of the training and leadership at MPW. 

Clum received a letter from the Interim Manager of the Jackson facility, Ted Henifin, complimenting the group on their skills and positive attitude. “They’re the kind of guys doing the quiet work behind the scenes, and all too often, they're not getting the recognition they deserve. So this award is a great way to recognize them,” says Klum. 

Ronald Carter, a Wastewater Operator employed by Pontchartrain Conservancy (PC), was also recently honored with the WEF Water Heroes Award. PC is an environmental science/research organization dedicated to protecting the 10,000 square mile watershed in southeast Louisiana for 16 Louisiana parishes. The area relies primarily on decentralized wastewater management, with thousands of on-site individual treatment systems serving homeowners and businesses. 

According to Executive Director Kristi Trail for PC, has made over 10,000 visits to home and business locations to educate owners about their systems. “We see an average failure rate of these systems at about 50%, so this work is critical to our environmental and public health,” she says. “In areas where we conduct these types of programs, we see the pass rates go from about 50% to 95%.” 

Carter is on the front lines of these efforts, educating homeowners and businesses on the operation and maintenance of their systems. He holds the highest certifications in both wastewater and drinking water treatment. After Hurricane Ida made landfall in Southeast Louisiana as a Category 4 storm on August 29, 2021, Carter helped avert a public health crisis by working quickly to help homeowners and businesses get their wastewater systems up and running, despite having damage at his own home. 

The first obstacle to overcome was hundreds of trees that were blocking roads. Carter and other volunteers started clearing roads with their tractors. With the grid destroyed by the hurricane, Carter ensured that wastewater systems were able to access generators for auxiliary power (a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina). With no power and limited cell service, he continued to work to make sure they had the fuel they needed. 

“When multiple larger decentralized systems are down due to power outages and there’s a short supply of generators, then it’s a huge problem to get them back online,” says Trail. 

Some natural gas-powered generators could not be used due to natural gas lines being pulled up by the hurricane. Other wastewater treatment centers with contracts for generator service discovered their suppliers could not support them. 

“The discharge from a failed sewer is the prime breeding ground for mosquitos that carry West Nile virus,” says Carter. “I was only thinking I wanted to get my community up and running and try to avert a health crisis.” 

Thanks to his dedication and expertise, Carter succeeded. He admits he was a little stunned upon learning he was being honored as a hero. “It’s nice to know that you’re doing your job and you caught someone’s eye,” he says.

In natural disasters, wastewater is often overlooked as a critical infrastructure system for disaster recovery. For decentralized areas, it’s even more difficult to highlight the importance of its immediate restoration for optimal public health. However, thanks to Carter’s dedication and expertise, the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana avoided a public health crisis that would have impacted hundreds of thousands of people. 

Gas heroes

The American Gas Association (AGA) is also doing its part to recognize when workers go above and beyond, by highlighting the stories of natural gas heroes on its website.

Glen Traffica, a 17-year veteran of natural gas provider Spire Alabama, stepped in to assist his community after a tornado touched down in his parents’ neighborhood. Minutes after the tornado passed and well before first responders could arrive Traffic grabbed a wrench and moved door-to-door, checking on his neighbors and turning off the gas in their homes, some of which had roofs torn off or walls caved in.

“The training I had in construction for five years, then my time as a service technician – it was because of that training and me working in those positions that it was just second nature,” said Traffica.

In Marin County, California, it took a true team effort from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to reroute natural gas pipelines after flooding caused a landslide that exposed that two sixteen-inch transmission lines in March 2023. Within 36 hours of discovering the landslide, heavy equipment was bought in to attempt to stabilize the hill and prevent future landslides. However, when deteriorating weather made it too hazardous to continue, the workers began a complex plan to reroute both pipelines through a single gas pipeline routed under the highway in a U-shape, without significantly inconveniencing drivers who rely on the highway.

With a twelfth atmospheric river on track to arrive Monday, risking a new landslide, more than 200 PG&E first responders worked through the night Saturday and into Sunday to lay the line and resurface the road, doing most of the work after dark to avoid closing the road during peak hours.

“In the face of extreme conditions, while faced with a ticking clock and numerous external constraints, PG&E accomplished an incredible task in service of their customers,” says Adam Kay, Senior Manager of Public Relations for the AGA. “They lived up to the highest virtues of our industry, and deserve acknowledgment for their accomplishments and the heroic efforts it took to achieve them.”

Electric power heroes

“It takes a different level of commitment to work on an emergency storm crew,” says Cory Hanks, Distribution Support Manager for Alabama Power’s Southern Division Power Delivery team. “The commitment is baked into our culture.” Emergency crews work long hours in challenging weather with little recognition. Industry-wide recognition programs shine a light on these efforts. For example, twice a year, Edison Electric Institute recognizes the recovery and assistance efforts of member companies following service disruptions caused by extreme weather or other natural events. In January 2024, Florida Power and Light (FPL) earned the award for its response to Hurricane Idalia, a category three storm that brought devasting winds, significant flooding and storm surge across North and Southwest Florida in late August 2023. FPL’s restoration workforce of 12,000 men and women from Florida and 16 other states worked around the clock to restore electricity to nearly 200,000 customers. 

Alabama Power Roving Crew L-R: Britt Clayton, Kyle Boswell, Dusty Holley, Steve Keel (Foreman), Jarrod Turnage, Jared Shirley Not Shown: Nic Porter, Derrick Young

But it’s not just during extreme weather events where utility heroes step up. Sometimes workers just happen to find themselves in an emergency situation. Such was the case for Alabama Power’s Southern Division Power Delivery team. They were working on an interruption for a reconductor on September 28, 2023. Daniel Hollis and Nic Porter of the Roving Crew were working in bucket trucks on poles near the Coosa River, just south of Lay Dam. Steve Keel and Britt Clayton were on the ground testing radios getting ready to pull wire. Nearby, a 4-year-old girl who was feeding ducks fell off a pier and into the river. She couldn’t swim and while her father and 8-year-old brother jumped in after her, they couldn’t swim either. Daniel and Nick saw that they were struggling to stay above water, and yelled to get Steve and Britt’s attention. Steve and Britt jumped in the water and pulled the boy out of the water. While Britt was helping the boy ashore, Steve swam out to the little girl and brought her back to Britt. He then helped the dad ashore.

The quick response of the crew prevented a tragedy. Their experience and training helped secure a positive outcome. In recognition of their lifesaving efforts, the team was honored with Alabama Power’s Presidential Award of Honor.

The work of utility emergency response crews deserves to be recognized and appreciated. Whoever the heroes of your workplace are, be sure to thank them for the work they do.

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