AMELIA, La. – When Hurricane Ida was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the grass was chest high and the warehouse empty at this lot in southeastern Louisiana. Within days, electric officials transformed it into a bustling “tent city” with enormous, air-conditioned tents for workers, a gravel parking lot for bucket trucks and a station to resupply crews restoring power to the region.
In the wake of hurricanes, one of the most common and comforting sites is the thousands of electric workers who flow into a battered region when the winds die down to restore power and a sense of normalcy. They need to sleep somewhere. They need to eat. Their trucks need fuel. They need wires, ties and poles. And occasionally they need cigarettes. Power providers build tent cities like this to meet those needs.
“There’s three things a lineman wants: good food, cold bed, hot shower. If you can get those three, you can work,” says Matthew Peters, operations manager for South Louisiana Electric Cooperative Association, which built the tent city to house a peak of about 1,100 workers helping restore power to the cooperative's customers.
When Ida came ashore on Aug. 29, it knocked out power to about 1.1 million customers in the state. The vast majority have seen their power restored, but in a sign of the storm's extent, thousands are still in the dark while downed lines are righted and substations repaired.
SLECA provides electricity to about 21,000 customers, including many in the hard-hit bayou regions. Power has been restored to about 81% of their coverage area with the remaining 19% in areas with the most catastrophic damage, said Joe Ticheli, general manager of the cooperative. After initially fearing full restoration of power could take months, estimates are now that it could happen by next week, Ticheli said.
Over a few short days, SLECA and a consulting firm transformed the location that used to be a hub for oil field manufacturer McDermott International into a temporary home for workers from across the country. Ticheli even appointed a mayor to make sure things run smoothly.
In one massive white tent, hundreds of cots are spread out; experienced workers bring their own inflatable mattresses. Another tent houses a cafeteria that serves hot breakfast starting about 5 a.m., dinner and boxed lunches that can be eaten out in the field. Tons of gravel was packed down on top of a grassy field so bucket trucks and other equipment — many flying American flags — can park.
At sunset, after workers park their trucks and head in to eat, shower and sleep, gasoline trucks drive up and down the rows, fueling the vehicles so no time is lost in the morning. Special treats — like cigarettes or steak night — help ease 16-hour workdays. Out-of-state crews are teamed with a local employee dubbed a “bird dog” who helps them.
Across the street is a warehouse where supplies such as transformers and wires are available. Outside, long wooden replacement poles wait to be loaded onto trucks.
Jordy Bourg, who runs the warehouse, said that right after the storm they had some supplies but immediately had to start ordering more. But like many things in the pandemic era, it's been a challenge after Ida to get certain supplies.
Many people coming in to help have covered other disasters: Hurricane Michael, Hurricane Laura, ice storms in Arkansas and Texas. It's good money, but more than that, they say it's the feeling of restoring normalcy to someone who's had everything stripped away from them. And many point out that the next disaster could easily be in their own backyard. Last year crews from SLECA went to southwest Louisiana when another Category 4 hurricane, Laura, slammed ashore there. This year, crews from southwest Louisiana came east to help.
“We've had a few storms hit back home and you kind of know how it is when you’ve been out of power,” said Robbie Davis, a lineman from Georgia. So many people in southeast Louisiana have no where to go, he said: “Out here, these folks' homes got destroyed, businesses got destroyed.”
It can be dangerous work — two men believed to be electrocuted died helping restore power in Alabama.
The Louisiana terrain presents special challenges. In some areas, lines thread through thick swamps that can be accessed only by air boat or marsh buggy, which looks like a cross between a tank and a pontoon boat. Workers don waders to climb into muddy, chest-high waters home to alligators and water moccasins.
"You only work in this kind of area when you’re in south Louisiana. I can assure you, you don’t get this anywhere else," says Jon Hise, a Sparks Energy foreman working with a crew in Houma to reset power lines. “It’s nasty. It’s chest deep. You can’t walk because the growth.”
As SLECA staff work to restore power to their slice of southeastern Louisiana, they have also been struggling with hurricane damage themselves. The general manager wears clothes from the Salvation Army after his home was severely damaged and looted. Coworkers have helped each other tarp damaged roofs. The company is operating out of trailers in their Houma headquarters after Ida peeled off the roof. Bourg is living in a trailer with his wife and two Boston terriers — his kids are staying with his in-laws — after Ida wrecked his house.
There's also the toll of seeing large swaths of their coverage area so utterly destroyed. For many, getting power is just the first step in a long rebuilding process. Peters gets emotional when he talks of the dedication of his staff as well as the damage he's seen among longtime customers.
“We’ve had storms before," he said. "But the devastation was nothing of this magnitude."
Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.