Distribution operator Stony Gillespie directs power flows on the central Virginia distribution grid.by James A. Bacon

Jeffrey A. Hutchinson, manager of  Dominion Virginia Power’s central operations center, first took note of Hurricane Matthew a month ago when it was a storm forming off Africa. Keeping tabs through the company’s two meteorologists and subscription weather services, he tracked its progress across the Atlantic Ocean. He felt relieved when the storm seemed to be heading toward the Caribbean – Virginia would dodge another bullet. But then it took a hard-right turn, barreling north along the Florida coast.

The operations center, which coordinates Dominion’s response to major storms, needed to get ready. One way or another, Hutchinson knew, he and his team had a long week ahead.

“We went from thinking that Matthew wouldn’t impact us, to thinking that Florida would be impacted and we’d need to send help, to realizing that we’d need help,” says Robbie Wright, director of planning and system reliability.

When a big storm threatens, Dominion mobilizes with one aim in mind: to restore electric power to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Over the years, the utility has developed a system for coping with catastrophe. The linemen comprise the visible, front-line force, clearing trees, patching power lines, and restoring substations. But they are backed by an extensive back-office staff that identifies issues and organizes a response. Everyone in the company from accountants to customer service reps has a designated support role, whether they’re patrolling power lines in the field or managing logistics in the operations center.

That system kicked in for Matthew. Even though the storm lost its hurricane force by the time it reached Dominion’s service territory in North Carolina and Virginia, it still packed a wallop. Gusts of wind reached 70 miles per hour in the Outer Banks. While the storm surge was mild, seven to ten inches of rain caused more flooding than anyone expected. According to spokesman Janell M. Hancock, Matthew was the 9th most destructive weather event in Dominion’s 100-plus-year history.

The high winds and heavy rain knocked out service to about 350,000 customers in Dominion’s eastern region and another 90,000 in the central region. Repair crews had to replace 285 poles, 870 cross arms, 2,100 insulators, 730 cutouts, 260 pole-mounted transformers and more than 22 miles of overhead wire.

One of Dominion’s top management priorities is reducing routine power outages and restoring power after major weather events as rapidly as possible. Preparations begin long before the bad weather hits. The company maintains a “portfolio” of programs geared to improving reliability year-round. Initiatives range from aggressive tree-trimming along power lines to upgrading sensitive equipment to stainless steel to protect against salt corrosion in coastal areas.

Dominion spends about $200 million a year reconditioning its distribution system (which steps down electricity from the high-powered transmission lines to lower-voltage lines serving homes and businesses), says Hutchinson. Some of that money goes to “hardening” infrastructure, some of it to installing sensors that detect power interruptions, and some of it to systems that allow control room operators to re-route electric flows.

Some of the biggest improvements have occurred out of sight, in Dominion’s three regional distribution operations centers. An extraordinary amount of information flows into these centers, allowing operators to quickly identify problems, set priorities and dispatch linemen into the field. “More and more, it’s about the data,” says Wright.

Lead analyst Wayne Williams coordinates efforts to get power restored, a particularly critical role during storm events.
Lead analyst Wayne Williams coordinates efforts to get power restored, a particularly critical role during storm events.

As Matthew approached Virginia and North Carolina, Hutchinson huddled with his staff to prepare for impact. Dominion belongs to a mutual-aid consortium of power companies that send crews to help one another during emergencies. As the storm track shifted, the power companies were in continual communication, conferring on who needed how much help and where it would come from. Dominion actually sent some of its contract crews down to assist the Florida clean-up; just as their work was finished there, they had to high-tail it back to Virginia.

Normal life shut down at Dominion as employees were dragooned into emergency positions.To keep people informed, communications teams interacted with the public and the news media, while lobbyists and coordinated with cities, counties and towns on emergency response.

Meanwhile, 900 employees from utilities as far away as Massachusetts and Florida traveled to Virginia to help with the restoration. Outside crews don’t show up and go straight to work, Hutchinson explains. Someone has to manage the lodging, travel and feeding of these crews. Someone also has to instruct them on the particularities of Dominion’s distribution system. All those tasks fell to Dominion employees.

IT systems that replace the old paper systems enabled Dominion to speed its response. time. The operations center tracked the exact number of linemen and bucket trucks, as well as their precise location in real time. Information about the distribution system flowed in from sensors, citizen notifications of outages, and field reports. Special “packaging” teams synthesized the data and built work plans for the crews to execute the next morning. Dominion prioritized critical facilities such as hospitals, water treatment centers, and 911 centers for immediate attention. After those were taken care of, the packagers assessed which restoration projects would get the most people back online the fastest.

Jeffrey Hutchinson, manager of Dominion’s central regional operations center, doesn’t need the multi-screen setups that his employees do. He’s usually “out on the floor,” he says.

Dominion’s teams worked 14 to 16 hours per day through the crisis, leaving enough time for people to get a full night’s sleep. Safety and good judgment are paramount, says Hutchinson, and it doesn’t help anyone to have sleep-deprived workers making decisions.

It isn’t easy staring at a computer monitor for hours on end, so the company keeps the food and caffeine flowing during storm responses. Operations veterans joke that a storm is a “five-pound storm” or a “three-pound” storm, depending on how much weight they put on.

Matthew was a three-pounder, quips Hutchinson: severe, but mild compared to Hurricane Isabel, Hurricane Irene and the Derecho. The storm hit Saturday but everyone had their power restored by Thursday. All things considered, he says, he’s proud of the job his team did. “There’s a real sense of satisfaction … to see the lights come on for our customers quickly and safely.”

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9 responses to “Storm Surge”

  1. Larrytheg Avatar

    The thing that Dominion can’t do anything about is perhaps the same thing that those who feared increased storms missed – which is not the wind but the rains – and flooding… far higher and longer than what we were expecting.

    So in NC and VA – it wasn’t the wind damage that delayed getting the grid back on line – it was the fact that flooding kept crews from getting to where they needed to be to repair…

    So we’re now hearing that we’re getting “rare” 500-year floods – the problem being that they seem to be more and more common….

    and the flooding is apparently now occurring in places that were never designated as floodplains…and folks don’t have flood insurance – and the power companies themselves had not built the grid infrastructure in places they did not think would flood… when perhaps they would have done differently if they thought flooding was likely and now.. will have to. You can’t repair power lines if you cannot get to them.

    I would expect at some point that flood maps will be updated to reflect the reality and I expect those updated maps will not be good news for anyone whether homeowners, local governments or public/private entities that maintain infrastructure…

    I guess we’re going to see some real applications of Bastiat’s broken window theory, eh?

  2. James Bacon Avatar
    James Bacon

    From El Sidd:

    Larrytheg, having gotten into some seriously tangled weeds with the reference to “broken window theory,” needs to elucidate/educate us, not-so-well informed folks.

    Is he referring to Frederic Bastiat’s (French) mid 19th century economic theory?

    Or the academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in the early 1980s (US)-dealing with inner city decay, social disorder and in genera, a criminal/social theory of urban decline?

    How do either relate to outdated flood maps? Eh?


  3. Looking forward to the answer on Bastiat, but meanwhile:

    I live near a suburban stream valley. That’s hardly unusual; but pursuant to that fact, and in furtherance of the Chesapeake Bay Act and the State’s floodplain protection bureaucracy, an extraordinary percentage of homes in Fairfax County (it seems like 10% though I really don’t know) sit on lots which are touched by floodplain building restrictions and in some cases mandatory flood insurance requirements. It does seem sometimes that this extraordinary retroactive limitation of property rights has been foisted upon us without any rational connection to the real historical incidence of flooding but with an eye to the empires being built by petty bureaucrats who must review everything I and my neighbors wish to do upon our land in terms of flood plain compatibility. And take months and sometimes require demanding engineering studies to do so.

    I’d like to think that’s simply the price of progress, in the name of avoiding just what Larry is talking about: little towns built alongside streams and rivers all over America which have encroached upon the naturally wide, flat areas created by past floods due to past government indifference (or corruption) and are now also threatened by seemingly more frequent floods due to seemingly changing weather patterns. As Larry says, “I would expect at some point that flood maps will be updated to reflect the reality and I expect those updated maps will not be good news for anyone.”

    But we cannot erase such past mistakes overnight. Meanwhile, people will continue to live in floodplains and power lines must reach them.

    So what are you proposing, Larry? Forbid the power company to restore its lines in such areas whenever damaged? Or do the best it can to restore power and rebuild infrastructure even to houses that shouldn’t be there in the first place?

    1. Larrytheg Avatar

      I’m saying – the power company will be re-thinking where their distribution lines are – so that when hundreds, thousands are without power, they can get to those major lines and repair them.

      that will be moving those distribution lines to higher ground… away from the flood prone places…

      the folks who are in the flood plains will still be connected but they won’t be getting power even after the hundreds and thousands of others are restored….

  4. Larrytheg Avatar

    “Claude-Frédéric Bastiat (French: [klod fʁedeʁik bastja]; 29 June 1801[1] – 24 December 1850) was a French economist and author who was a prominent member of the French Liberal School. He developed the economic concept of opportunity cost, and introduced the Parable of the Broken Window. ”


    ” The parable of the broken window was introduced by Frédéric Bastiat in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen) to illustrate why destruction, and the money spent to recover from destruction, is not actually a net benefit to society. ”

    so maybe some confusion between “theory” and “parable”

    but the point is that if we are going to see increased flooding over and above what we thought we would have – we’re going to see MORE destruction – AND INCREASED costs associated with moving existing infrastructure, flood-proofing other infrastructure, more flood-plain designation from new flood maps which, in turn will adversely affect the value and suitability of existing buildings and planned ones.

    In other words – if we are going to see expanded flood maps – that represent a new reality of storms that dump far more water and, in turn, result in much higher, wider, longer duration flooding – it’s going to be far, far more costly that before and that’s going to have serious financial impacts on property owners, insurance, governments – both the value of what they tax and their costs to mitigate – as well as the National Subsidized flood insurance program.


  5. Larrytheg Avatar

    ” Scientists Say Expect More 1,000-Year Events Like Louisiana Flood
    Louisiana’s devastating rainfall was the state’s second “1,000-year” flood this year”

    Starting with Hurricane Sandy and continuing through 2016 – we have had about half dozen 500 and 1000 year floods – most of them not from hurricanes but from storms that dumped far more rain that had been seen – ever.

    2015 Louisiana flood
    The 2015 Louisiana floods took place during June 2015. The Red River of the South flooded parts of northern Louisiana. The Red River reached its highest level in over 70 years during the floods.[46]

    2015 Missouri floods
    The storm system was responsible for heavy rain that caused severe flooding in 13 states, with Missouri being especially impacted.[14][15] Parts of the state were hit with over 10 in (0.25 m) of heavy rainfall.[6]

    In Union, Missouri, the Bourbeuse River rose to 34.22 ft (10.43 m), above the preceding record of 33.79 ft (10.30 m) which occurred on December 5, 1982.

    More than 180 roads, including portions of Interstates 44, 55, and 70, and several bridges were closed.[20][21] The Meramec River, near St. Louis, crested 2 ft (0.61 m) above its previous record height, inundating nearby communities

    April 2016 Houston floods
    In April 2016, Houston, Texas was flooded with over one foot of rain in 24 hours.[51]

    May 2016 Oklahoma floods
    The 2016 Oklahoma floods set precipitation records in both Texas[52] and Oklahoma.[53]

    June 2016 West Virginia floods
    The flooding was the result of 8 to 10 inches of rain falling over a period of 12 hours, resulting in a flood tied for seventh among Deadliest floods in West Virginia history

    July 2016 Maryland floods
    On the evening of July 30, a severe thunderstorm moved into the area of Ellicott City where it dumped an estimated 6 inches (15 cm) of rain in two hours. The flash flood that resulted inflicted severe damage to the area primarily on Main Street.

    2016 Louisiana floods

    Rainfall rates of up to 2–3 inches (5.1–7.6 cm) an hour were reported in the most deluged areas. Totals exceeded nearly 2 feet (61 cm) in some areas as a result of the system remaining stationary.[3] Accumulations peaked at 31.39 inches (797 mm) in Watson, just northeast of Baton Rouge.[4]

    these rainfalls are some of the biggest ever seen – they’re classified as 100, 500, and 1000 year floods.

    that’s going to cause flood maps to be redrawn – already has – and there is actually opposition to updating the maps because of impacts on the value of property.

  6. Larrytheg Avatar

    another interesting aspect of the “parable” is this idea:

    ” It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.”

    which conjures up the issue of choices we all , including govt, make for current spending….. some folks use their money for lottery tickets and Kings Dominion instead of addressing their flood risk.. or insurance for flooding … and govts also make choices about priorities – about proactive spending for flood-proofing verses other wants/needs…

    and both – individuals and govts – rely on/expect the Federal govt to help pay for flooding damage even when they had choices prior – and so the Feds add to deficit and debt in trying to pay for flood damage that may well have been made less costly had individuals and govts – addressed the risk and the cost rather than making other choices.

  7. James Bacon Avatar
    James Bacon

    From El Sidd:

    Larrytheg. Did you mean “capisce”, Italian for “understand”?
    I still do not understand, no matter how many Wikipedia cut and pastes you include.

    Yes, improving services to users will obviously involve increased costs to users. It does not take an obscure “theory” or a “parable” known to few, to illustrate the fact.

    How such services are developed and delivered is a worthy subject for a discussion.

  8. Larrytheg Avatar

    not sure what is meant by “services”… perhaps it can be explained?

    we’re talking about land – and it’s value… and the impacts to that value if it is reclassified as flood plain… not services…

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