Total number of customers: 2.26 million
In a way, CenterPoint Energy began preparing for Hurricane Ike a quarter century before its arrival. The company’s experience recovering from Hurricane Alicia in 1983 and more recently from the glancing blow of Hurricane Rita in 2005 helped strengthen our storm-recovery culture that has been honed by annual drills and scores of mutual assistance efforts on behalf of other utilities. We maintain a comprehensive Emergency Operating Plan (EOP) that is updated routinely and coordinated with state and local officials. When the EOP is activated, all employees take on critical emergency response roles and postpone non-essential business tasks. Before the onset of the 2008 hurricane season, we held our annual EOP drill and, with the City of Houston and National Weather Service, sponsored the largest hurricane workshop in the country to help prepare the community for hurricanes such as Ike.
When we activated our EOP three days before Ike made landfall, we had already obtained sufficient fuel, lodging and supplies to begin restoration efforts. All personnel assigned to EOP, mutual assistance crews, vendors and distributors were poised and ready for post-storm activities.
Using our online mapping system with an outage tracking application that receives a real-time weather feed every few hours, we prepared probability models to evaluate potential storm impact and system damage. When the storm’s path promised a direct hit, we alerted the community with safety information on television, radio and the Web, advising customers to prepare for outages lasting two to three weeks or longer.
Hundreds of employees rode out the storm in company command centers, service centers and other facilities. As soon as winds subsided below tropical storm force – nine hours after landfall – crews were dispatched from 12 service centers to assess the damage and begin the largest power restoration effort in Texas history, following a strategy proven in our response to Alicia and Rita. Within a few days, we opened 11 staging sites to support mutual assistance crews that came to aid the restoration.
Our restoration priorities had been established beforehand. First, we secured downed power lines and restored service to key facilities vital to public safety, health and welfare such as hospitals, wastewater treatment plants and water treatment facilities, including the Trinity River water pumping station: a major source of water for the greater Houston area. The station is located in a neighboring utility’s service territory, but as we had first done after Rita, we rerouted power from our electric grid to Entergy’s via an intricate switching system without damaging either company’s system. Within four days, we had restored 96 percent of our transmission line and substation capabilities, returning service to 832,000 customers – more than all those who had lost power during Alicia or Rita.
Second, we repaired major lines and fuses to restore power to the greatest number of customers in the shortest time. On day five, armies of tree trimmers (ultimately more than 5,000) began to sweep across our service territory, followed by more than 7,000 linemen, who restored power to the one millionth customer on day six and to 1.5 million customers – 75 percent of those who had lost power – within 10 days.
Finally, we repaired transformers, which typically serve 10 or fewer customers, and electric drops to individual homes (house-to-house combat, to maintain the military metaphor). By day 16, we had restored power to two million customers. On the 18th day, we concluded emergency operations, having met our initial service restoration projection of two to three weeks. Work continued only on isolated cases requiring repair of customer-owned equipment and to replace temporary fixes with long-term repairs.
Nearly as challenging as the restoration effort was the task of communicating with customers and public officials before, during and after the storm. As with our EOP, our communication plan began well before the storm, with the pre-season hurricane workshop and a year-round Storm Center web page with safety tips and preparation resources. Days before the storm, we purchased radio ads and began communicating with local, state and national media. We tracked Ike’s path on our Web site for days leading up to the storm, with hourly updates right up to and during landfall.
Following the storm and through 18 days of recovery, our Corporate Communications department worked in lockstep with operations to deliver the information the public craved almost as much as they did power. Local and national news media inundated the company with requests for interviews and information. We were key participants in frequent press briefings held by Transtar, a consortium of local government agencies responsible for emergency management services, and we held our own press conference to address the restoration. We issued almost two dozen news releases with pre- and post-storm safety tips, FAQs, and restoration expectations and milestones. In an Op-Ed essay for the Houston Chronicle, our president of Regulated Operations, Tom Standish, laid out a vision to build an electric grid of the future to enable us to respond more effectively and hopefully get power restored faster when dealing with the worst of Mother Nature.
Our Government Relations team provided daily briefings and newsletters to federal, state, county and local officials including congress members and the Public Utility Commission. An executive liaison provided the U.S. Department of Energy with daily updates on restoration objectives and major accomplishments, which made their way to President Bush. Our Call Center staff, along with support from other work groups and third-party vendors, worked around the clock. On the first day, they fielded 90,177 calls, answering 72 percent within 30 seconds. Agents advised customers on safety measures and provided power restoration status and estimates with help from the Interactive Voice Response phone system and Web site. A dedicated Ike channel on the company Web site provided news; recovery resources; restoration forecasts, updates and maps; safety tips and FAQs; information in Spanish; and a photo and video gallery. As customers without power accessed the Web site through family and friends, public libraries, smart phones and Blackberries, hits to the Web site surged 2,700 percent.
Even more than with Alicia and Rita, our experience with Ike has taught us lessons for future catastrophes. We will work to continuously update our priority customer list of hospitals, public health and safety facilities, water pumping stations and citizens dependent on life-supporting equipment. We plan to bring in more damage assessors and train all our line mechanics as foreign crew coordinators. We will help customers have realistic expectations about the time necessary to restore power after a major storm so they can be better prepared for the inconveniences and demands of an extended outage. We will work to develop improved methods for tracking restoration progress and communicating that information to customers. Our current outage reporting system, designed to facilitate repairs, provides limited customer-centric information. Nonetheless, our Ike data will enable us to improve our damage prediction models, and while our EOP worked very well under the circumstances, we continue an after action review to be even better prepared next time.