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APCO storm chief won't forget dreadful derecho

Chris Dorst
Three months after the June 29 derecho, APCO storm coordinator Scott Chambers still marvels at the extent of the damage. "You see some destruction like that in ice storms and in locations with a concentrated wind event," he said, "but nothing as widespread as what we saw."
Chris Dorst Laptop computers mounted in AEP service trucks provide field workers with immediate outage reports. GPS systems direct them to the site.
Chris Dorst Thank-you notes from students at West Side Elementary cover a bulletin board at the AEP service center in North Charleston. The students expressed gratitude to workers for restoring power after the June 29 derecho.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- That fateful Friday night, he was at Little Creek Park watching his daughter play softball. He knew we might get a storm. He wasn't worried.

"We'd had the same forecast every day for four days," he said.

But he kept checking the radar on his Blackberry, just in case. "You are glued to the weather in a job like this," he said.

Nothing on the radar alarmed him.

But suddenly, the sky got inky dark. The wind kicked up. Officials cleared the softball field.

He hustled his daughter, wife and mother-in-law to the car. They watched in awe as gigantic oak trees swayed sideways in the wind. He moved the car to an open space and rode out the storm.

"I've seen a lot of storms," he said, "but this was the most destructive. It's the first time we'd ever heard the term derecho. Now we know what it means."

Scott Chambers hopes he never hears that word again.

He dropped off his family at his mother-in-law's house in Spring Hill and headed to work. He worked the whole weekend and the weekend after that. He worked 12 to 14 hours a day for three weeks.

He's the storm coordinator for Appalachian Power, part of his job as operations support manager.

"We all have our normal jobs and then our storm role," he said. "When the process starts, we move into that role."

Three months later, Chambers knows he won't ever forget the details of that dreadful day.

It started with a notice from the company meteorologist to expect some storm activity. At about 4 p.m., the meteorologist called to say the predicted storm might be more organized than originally thought.

"But he said the front might die out as the evening cooled and the front moved to Virginia. It was just kind of a 'by-the-way' thing."

Still no cause for alarm.

As a precaution, he put contractors on notice in Virginia that we might need help with scattered outages. "We had everyone on alert," he said, "but it was a routine thing."

At the ballgame, through his Blackberry, he learned that Indiana, Michigan and Ohio had asked for West Virginia's help after a severe storm swept their states. "We decided to sit tight."

It's a good thing.

He put out the first storm call at 9 p.m. The storm team assembled quickly in the "war room" where ringing phones and heightened activity hinted at the drama ahead.

The first step was a conference call to assess the outage numbers and damage and craft a game plan for the following day. "We had 231,000 customers without power at 9. By the next morning, the number had doubled to 570,000.

"Sixty percent of our customers were without power. There were more transmission lines out than at any time I can remember. Those are huge issues when you have whole stations out."

Some workers stayed through the night. Chambers went home at midnight and returned at 6 the next morning.

The main focus, he said, was getting help and getting it quickly. "Typically, we draw from the Midwest, from Kentucky and Ohio, but they all needed help as bad as we did. We got some help from the South and from places we'd never drawn from before -- Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas. Eventually, we had crews here from 22 states, including California."

The dire circumstances hit home -- literally. His home lost power three times for 24 hours each time, more because of the heat than the windstorm, he said. His mother-in-law, among the powerless, moved in with them for a week along with his son's friend. "We had quite a group at our house."

The post-storm heat caused increasing concern for field workers. "What we do is nothing compared to what they do in the field. Temperatures were around 100 degrees, and heat indexes were at dangerous levels. We monitor heat indexes and relay that information to them so they can take 10- to 30-minute breaks

"It's extraordinary, the work they do."

Coordinators send trouble orders to field workers through computers in the trucks. "We can do it all electronically now," he said. "We used to arrange trouble calls in stacks of paper that had to be picked up and distributed. Now we send them on the computer. And with GPS systems, they can drive right to it."

Mother Nature complicated things by sending four other storms in the same time period. At least three of those were major storms by company standards, he said.

The other storms extended outages for some customers or caused them to lose power again, he said.

He knows now to marshal more forces up front, but it's a tough call, he said. "About two weeks later, we got a similar forecast and we started moving people in here and nothing occurred."

Finding hotel rooms and food for incoming workers following the derecho was a huge challenge considering the number of people involved, he said. The Greenbrier Classic and two conferences in Charleston didn't help. "We had a lot of trouble finding rooms."

No stranger to storm coordination, Chambers held the same title in 2005, the year of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. He focused on "off system" duties, coordinating emergency assistance requested by other states. "I probably worked off system somewhere for three straight months. It was great experience."

Before settling into his current role here, he spent two years on a reorganization assignment in Huntington where he'd worked previously as a district manager.

A 48-year-old Dunbar native, son of an electrical contractor, he knew he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps in some way. He got a degree in electrical engineering from West Virginia Tech and a master's in engineering management from Marshall.

He started with APCO in the engineering group, working on lines that feed APCO customers. He specialized in underground engineering for industry in the Huntington network, moved into marketing and customer service and power engineering for new businesses.

"I missed distribution work, being out in the field," he said. So he rejoined the operations group here where he supervised Southern West Virginia line contractors and tree trimmers.

Next, he moved to Milton as an area supervisor, a training job for management.

That led to a district manager position in Huntington that involved much of Southern West Virginia.

Nothing has challenged him more than storm work. "We called the December 2009 storm the largest storm we'd ever had," he said. "We can't call it that now. The derecho was hopefully the largest event that we will ever see."

Grateful for support from customers, he said, "They gave food and water to the guys in the field and were very understanding and appreciative. It goes so much smoother when that happens."

He looks at the storm as a teaching tool. "Every time we have an event, we look at what we could have done better and we develop training around that.

"I'm not bragging," he said, "but we do a good job with this."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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