HELCO reflects on response to Iselle

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Keane Iranon expected a mess.

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Keane Iranon expected a mess.

But upon seeing the twisted masses of poles, wires and trees strewn all over the roads on the morning of Aug. 8, 2014, he realized he’d underestimated the potential for damage.

“I had an idea, but I didn’t expect it to be that bad,” he said.

As a worker on one of Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s construction and maintenance crews, Iranon was responsible for restoring power to the tens of thousands of HELCO customers impacted by the landfall of Tropical Storm Iselle the night before. It was a daunting task, made all the more difficult by the fact that early on, it was nearly impossible to get to where he needed to go.

“I live in Volcano. I got on the main road (heading to Hilo) around 2 a.m. The wind was blowing, trees were down. I just had to pick my way around them,” he said.

Co-worker Gabriel Figueira said he, too, had more than a few unwanted run-ins with trees as he worked in Puna. He remembers driving into the Hawaiian Beaches subdivision to begin repair work and thinking, “Oh my God. This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said.

“I looked down Kahakai Boulevard, and there was just … everything was in the road. Total chaos,” he said.

In fact, he was very nearly crushed by a 100-foot albizia tree as he assessed damage on a piece of property near the rubbish dump in Pahoa.

“A tree had fallen and broken a pole, and I drove in to check it,” he said.

But as he drove onto the property, he suddenly heard a loud cracking sound from above.

“I just threw it into reverse and got out of there,” he said. “I remember just looking up, and it looked like the whole forest was coming down on top of me. I realized it was still too hairy out there and had to go back in.”

Both men said maintaining safety is the most important part of their jobs, and when safety is at risk, they have to back off. However, they agreed: It’s always difficult to leave a job to go home for some much-needed rest knowing there are customers without power.

“We’d been going for two or three days without sleep,” Iranon said. “(Supervisors) made us go home.”

Iranon and Figueira weren’t the only ones putting in long hours restoring Hawaii Island’s electric grid.

Most of the island’s 350 HELCO employees were hard at work after the storm, as were a number of utility workers from HELCO’s sister companies who came to the Big Island to lend a hand, according to spokeswoman Rhea Lee-Moku.

“It’s something we’ve known for a long time: Partnerships are vital. And we continue to maintain and improve them,” she said.

For the next 16 days, HELCO and its partners worked to repair more than 90 miles of electric lines, 238 poles and 175 transformers that were damaged.

Out of 82,000 customers total on Hawaii Island, 25,400 were left without power after Iselle passed, and by the end of Friday, Aug. 8, that number had been reduced to 9,200. By Aug. 23, only those customers who still had repairs to make to their own property first were without electricity, Lee-Moku said.

She said the storm helped to confirm that the emergency response plan HELCO has in place is one that works efficiently. But, it also allowed the company to make some tweaks and strengthened some of its procedures.

For instance, she said, “prior to Iselle, we knew trees were a problem. But we learned well from Iselle, we learned that trees are our biggest threat.”

HELCO began putting that information into use early this year, she said, increasing its work to do preventive tree cutting, especially of the fast-growing and notoriously brittle albizia trees, near its electric grid components.

“We started much earlier than even the start of the hurricane season this year in doing increased vegetation management for trees and brush that are near our transmission and distribution lines. We really focused in on the Hamakua area and then the Puna district this year,” Lee-Moku said. “We’ve already spent a lot of time and money on vegetation management this year.”

As of July, HELCO had spent approximately $3.2 million in the past year on its vegetation management efforts, she said.

Another important lesson from the storm was the necessity of good communication with customers. Early on in the power restoration efforts, linemen had to focus on repairing HELCO’s transmission lines, which serve as the backbone of the grid. Those lines are usually off main roads in heavy overgrowth and are typically out of sight of the public, Lee-Moku explained. So many customers may have been upset by not seeing much work being done on their streets, but in fact plenty of work was going on behind the scenes, she said.

“Our employees were out there right away getting transmission restored. Then they can work on restoring individual customers’ power. … You’ve gotta get that backbone back to normal in order to actually start restoring communities,” she said.

A community information station set up in the Hawaiian Shores Community Center was a new idea that HELCO tried for the first time after Iselle. It served as a hub to communicate with customers, providing maps to show where repairs were being done at any given moment, as well as providing a generator to allow customers to recharge cellphones, laptops and more. Snacks, water, ice and other goods were supplied for people dealing with extended outages.

“Communication is so essential. People need to know what’s going on,” she said.

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That communication worked both ways, she added. Social media sites Twitter and Facebook enabled the company to hear from customers who may not have been able to get through on phone lines to report damage that HELCO wasn’t yet aware of.

“That was very valuable, as well,” Lee-Moku said.

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