The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 3, 2012

Power company rep enlightens Monroe Commission on derecho response

By Tina Alvey
Register-Herald Reporter

UNION — The Monroe County Commission continued to sort out the aftermath of the June 29 derecho during a Wednesday morning meeting with a power company executive.

John L. Norman, FirstEnergy’s manager of external affairs for a 12-county region that includes Monroe, reviewed some of the lessons the energy firm learned from the devastation the massive wind storm caused to the power grid.

He pointed out that Ohio-based FirstEnergy is fairly new in the West Virginia market, having merged with Mon Power’s parent company early last year.

The company is now adjusting some of its emergency procedures to reflect the special challenges offered by the topography in the rural areas of West Virginia, Norman said. Those changes should hasten the restoration of service after a disastrous event, he noted, in part by pushing data and personnel out to local service centers sooner.

He also commented on the company’s ice and water distribution agreements. Although those commodities were distributed in Monroe County after this summer’s derecho, the process relied heavily on local volunteers rather than established business partnerships, Norman said.

By contrast, in Greenbrier County, ice and water were distributed in the Lowe’s parking lot, with store personnel assisting other volunteers in controlling traffic and loading the supplies provided by FirstEnergy into people’s vehicles.

Norman said an effort is now under way to secure additional cooperative agreements with businesses to serve as distribution points for future disaster relief efforts. With no large retailers, however, Monroe County remains unlikely to have a distribution point within its borders, he cautioned.

West Virginia also presented technological challenges that forced the company to adjust certain procedures — significantly, the lack of cell phone and radio communication service in remote locations.

“We certainly learned the value of satellite phones,” Norman said, using the “quiet zone” surrounding the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas County as an example of a cell phone-free environment.

He said FirstEnergy also plans to improve data availability — such as increased detail on power outage maps — on its website, although some of that additional information might be restricted to use only by emergency agencies and government divisions.

“We learn on the fly,” Norman said.

In response to a question from commission President Shane Ashley regarding the durability of the “on-the-fly” repairs to the power system following the storm, Norman acknowledged some of the immediate repairs were temporary, designed to get electricity back on as quickly as possible. He explained that crews then went back over the same terrain after all service was restored and performed the permanent, durable repairs as necessary.

“It took three or four weeks after the power was restored to get everything back and running normally,” he noted.

Norman said he plans to meet with officials in each of the 12 counties he oversees, providing information and “building relationships” with government leaders and emergency agencies.

In a related matter, the commission met with a Gap Mills firefighter delegation concerned about the lack of progress in building a promised directional communications tower in the Moncove Lake area.

Ashley told the men, “The ball was dropped. It’s as simple as that.”

But he said the county is now moving forward on the project once more, with 911 director Tim Wilson at the helm.

Also Wednesday, commissioners voted unanimously to accept low bids submitted by Duane Miller Construction for two grant-funded projects: a concrete parking area and walkway at Sweet Springs, at a cost of $9,104, and parking lot paving at the 911 Center, with a bid of $9,476.

The only other bidder on the two projects, Brown Construction, submitted figures that were significantly higher.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com