The Aftermath of Natural Disasters

The never-ending hurricane season in Louisiana this year is a reminder that fiber network owners should have disaster recovery plans in place before they are hit with unexpected major network damages and outages.

The magnitude of the storm damages in Louisiana this year is hard for the mind to grasp. Entergy, the largest electric company in the area reported that the latest hurricane Laura took out 219 electric transmission lines and 1,108 miles of wiring. The storm damaged 9,760 poles, 3,728 transformers, and 18,706 spans of wires. And Entergy is not the only electric company serving the storm-damaged area. To make matters worse, the utility companies in the area were still in the process of repairing damage from the two earlier hurricanes.

Hurricanes aren’t the only natural disaster that can damage networks. The recent fires in the northwest saw large numbers of utility poles burnt and miles of fiber melted. The town of Ruston, Louisiana saw hurricane damage this year after having massive damage last year from a major tornado.

How does the owner of a fiber network prepare for major damage? Nobody can be truly prepared for the kind of damage cited above by Entergy, but there are specific steps that should be taken long before damage hits.

One of the first steps is to have a disaster plan in place. This involves identifying ahead of time all of the first steps that should be taken when a disaster hits. This means knowing exactly who to call for help. It means having at least a minimal amount of key spare components on hand, and knowing where to find what’s needed in a hurry. It involves having plans for how to get a message out to affected customers during the emergency.

Probably the best step to take is to join a mutual aid group. This is a group of other similar network owners that agree to send repair teams after a disaster strikes. For the kind of damage caused by the hurricanes this year, hundreds of additional work crews are needed to tackle the repairs. Every utility industry has such groups. For example, the American Public Power Association has a Mutual Aid Network. This group mobilizes crews from member utilities and rushes them to the affected area, as needed. Any company joining these groups must realize that they will be asked to send crews when other group members are hit by disasters.

These mutual aid groups are a lifesaver. They not only gather the needed workforce required to fix disaster damages, but they help to coordinate the logistics of housing and feeding crews and of locating the raw materials – fiber and poles, needed to repair damages.

There is also a money side of disasters to deal with. Much of the funding to repair major storm damage comes from FEMA as funds are authorized when governors declare states of emergency. There is a huge pile of paperwork needed to claim disaster funding and there are specialized consulting firms that can help with the efforts.

There was a time when electric networks and fiber networks were separate entities, but today electric companies all utilize fiber networks as a key component for operating the electric grid. When repairing downed electric lines, it’s now mandatory to also reconnect the fiber networks that allow electric substations to function. This means that crews of fiber splicers are needed alongside electric utility technicians.

The massive damages seen this year ought to be a reminder for anybody that operates a large network to have a disaster recovery plan. I know fiber overbuilders who have never considered this, and perhaps this year will prompt them to get ready – because you never know where the next disaster will hit.