In the gas utility business, being prepared for any emergency is as natural as waking up in the morning and going to work. There is always a plan to handle a gas leak, broken pipe, supply shortage, etc. But then there are those rare cases that no amount of planning can solve. They are the events that try our souls and test the depths of our humanity. This is what happened on April 27, 2011 when a swarm of killer tornadoes ravaged the state of Alabama.
More than 50 tornadoes wove a path of death and destruction throughout the state, killing 241 people in Alabama’s worst natural disaster. It was also an event of unprecedented dimensions for an American gas utility.
While they often have to contend with tornadoes and other catastrophic events such as hurricanes, never had a utility been faced with a crisis similar to what Alagasco endured on that awful day. It was not just a neighborhood or a community that was affected by the tornadoes, but an entire state with Alagasco being the main natural gas provider in the affected areas.
Even though the National Weather Service continually barked out dire warnings of imminent disaster, there was no easy way to set up an effective response. It is a memory forever etched in the minds and hearts of Birmingham-based Alagasco, especially with Ken Smith, who as vice president, Operations, directed the response effort.
Still, despite the unprecedented nature of the storm, Alagasco offers a case study of how a utility can and should react to a situation fraught with danger and stress.
“Thankfully there was a lot of warning in our area that the weather was going to be bad that day. We had several days advance warning and the live television coverage of the Tuscaloosa tornado event helped prepare Birmingham personnel for what was going to take place,” Smith told P&GJ in an interview nearly a year after the event.
In Tuscaloosa, the operations office closed at 3:30 p.m. and employees were sent home to ensure the safety of their families and then to respond as needed. In Birmingham, the early warnings provided time to stage employees throughout the service territory and wait until the severe weather passed. After the most severe weather was over employees were able to quickly respond to impacted areas, Smith said.
Smith, 53, is a native of Birmingham and a 1981 graduate of Auburn University with a BS degree in civil engineering who began working for Alagasco shortly after graduation. Nothing in those 30 years of work remotely compares with April 27.
“Those are the types of events that we have not ever experienced before and I’m not sure we could be prepared for it,” Smith said. “In fact, looking at emergency outage situations that we’ve had previously, they’ve usually been due to a gas supply problem, not a weather-related issue.”
“The only weather-related issues that we’ve ever had were typically due to a tornado – the last one with any impact was in 1998 and only affected about 200 customers. We had some impact from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 that only impacted about 300 customers. These tornadoes impacting about 4,500 customers were a completely different experience for us,” he said.
Because of its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, Alabamans are obviously aware of the potential for hurricane impact, particularly along the coast where a direct hit could be expected to do the most damage. Most gas utilities such as Alagasco would primarily be affected by high winds as the hurricane turns inland; rarely would they have to deal with a large number of lines being ripped out of the ground such as Alagasco faced. So many homes were destroyed that in some cases all that remained standing were the gas risers leaking gas.
Facing The Unknown
There were at least two waves of severe weather that struck Alabama on April 27. The first came through north central Alabama in the early morning hours, producing damaging winds and a few strong tornadoes. A second round of much more severe storms struck in the late afternoon-early evening hours, creating several supercell thunderstorms and strong, lasting tornadoes across the northern two-thirds of the state, causing widespread and catastrophic damage.
One of the biggest hurdles Alagasco faced was the certainty that it was going to have heavy damage throughout the state but not being able to send resources to the right location until after the last of the storms had moved out. Where were they most going to be needed to assist customers and the public? Tuscaloosa was one such area.
In some cases, company officials had to watch nervously as the tornadoes seemed headed directly at some of their operations centers, particularly Tuscaloosa.
As soon as they deemed it was safe, Alagasco began pulling resources from other areas in response to those communities where the most damage had incurred. In the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham area consisting of Greene, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties, an F-4 tornado packing winds up to 190 mph lasted from 4:43-6:14 p.m., displaying a damage width of 1.5 miles that moved an estimated 80 miles, killing at least 65 people and injuring more than 1,000.
“The most difficult challenge for us was trying to get out and pinpoint where the damage was and isolate it in very unforgiving conditions,” Smith recalled.
As nighttime added another layer of blackness to those devastated areas that were left without power, utility crews struggled with whatever light they could find just to see where they were going. Frequently, they reached areas they could not access because of enormous amounts of debris and trees in the road. So they parked their trucks and walked to do whatever they could to find gas leaks and make conditions safe for their customers and the public while doing the best they could to protect themselves in that environment. One employee suffered a minor injury during the response.
Alagasco has an Emergency Response Team in place that is designed to deploy resources to any area in the service territory when an emergency occurs. They are charged with making an initial assessment and ensuring the areas are safe.
“Our initial reaction after damage assessment was whether our internal resources would be enough to handle all the emergency calls that were coming into our Contact Center,” Smith said. “After the first night, we determined we were responding well and keeping up with the calls we were receiving. Our next concern was getting replacements for field crews who had worked 24 hours straight.
“We were able to get employees from areas that had not been adversely affected by the storms to supply Tuscaloosa and Birmingham with crews to keep operations working around the clock for the first few days after the storm. It was obvious that the preparation, training and experience level of our employees on the Emergency Response Team enabled Alagasco to respond quickly and effectively to this unprecedented event,” he said.
The normal chain of command also takes an unusual bend as those supervisors on the ground have the authority and responsibility to make whatever decisions they deem necessary.
“As our president has stated in the past on things of this nature, ‘I’m here, you’re there. It’s your call,’” Smith explained. The meaning goes much deeper.
“That speaks to the confidence we have in our local management to handle those issues. We have to be ready for that in case communication lines are down anyhow. It’s the responsibility of those individuals to manage their operations and if we can communicate, terrific – we can keep those lines open and get resources in the right place. If we can’t, then they’re going to take care of things anyhow.”
In Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, work was done to isolate and abandon damaged sections of Alagasco’s distribution system as quickly as possible. Over the next few days, crews worked to restore service to homes where it was safe to do so.
Tuscaloosa Hardest Hit
By far, Alagasco’s Tuscaloosa operations had the most damage with a total of 60,805 feet of main or 11.5 miles being taken out of service due to the destruction. The tornado cut a path .75-mile wide by 6.75 miles long. Main gas lines were retired along the direct touch point of the tornado either due to the numerous damages to the pipeline (uprooted lines) or due to the extensive damage to the buildings in the area.
By November, Alagasco had replaced about 6.5 miles of main. Smith said a great deal of progress has been made rebuilding the infrastructure. Most of the areas where rebuilding has occurred or will occur in the future has new gas mains in place. There are some areas where planning is still taking place that the company is awaiting word before service is returned.
Very few gas mains were abandoned or damaged in Birmingham but a significant amount of damage occurred to service lines, meters, and regulators as a result of uprooted trees and destroyed homes, Smith said. Most of the abandoned main and service lines were back in service shortly afterwards though there are some areas where homes and businesses still need to be rebuilt,
Also damaged in a separate early morning tornado was the St. Clair Operations Center, but fortunately it happened before anyone had arrived to work. However, the extensive damage made the building structurally unstable and could not be occupied. It has since been repaired and is operating again.
Alagasco had capital expenditures of approximately $1.3 million for damages to infrastructure which includes meters, regulators and main lines to be replaced. Repairs to the St. Clair facility were expected to add $350,000 in expenditures.
Alagasco has looked at the disaster from every conceivable angle and in retrospect, Smith thinks there is little that could have been done differently under the circumstances.
“We certainly have a number of areas that we focus on for constant improvements as we go forward, ranging from safety of our employees to looking at retrofitting any of our current facilities for storm shelter installations. Not all of our facilities had that available to them.
“Beyond that, we’re looking at purchasing equipment that we probably could have used such as infrared leak detection equipment that would allow us to look for leaks over a longer track because we can’t get on top of the debris to search for leakage. We’re also more focused on additional emergency lighting, additional four-wheel drive vehicles, back-up communications with emergency inventory, and a need to keep the locating crews ahead of other utilities/contractors’ repair work efforts.
“We’re planning to build out and develop a command center trailer which we did not have before. We would typically use local facilities that might help us, but with the damage that occurred, there were not any local facilities such as churches or armories that were available. We realize that we need to have something mobile and capable of setting up quickly and easily,” Smith said.
What advice does the Alagasco executive offer to other utilities that need to prepare for any eventuality?
“Continue to reinforce emergency operations response planning. We do that annually. As we look at future emergency operations training, this particular storm created a much different level of issues and problems that we had not envisioned occurring because of the widespread damage throughout the state.
Employees Came Through
The short-term impact was an exhausted workforce, depletion of certain stock items needed for emergency response and a complete disruption of normal day-to-day work activities, Smith said.
Though he always knew Alagasco’s employees would come through, their overwhelming response still fills their boss with pride. After making sure their families were safe, many of their own homes were damaged. Despite those personal issues, many heeded the request for assistance.
“I can’t say strongly enough that our personnel went beyond the call of duty to the point where we were having to force them to go home and rest because they wanted to stay and continue to help. Even when they were in those situations trying to take care of our business, they were also helping local residents as well if something came up.
“They were there in the community first – many times ahead of the emergency responders – because they were focused on getting out there and making our operating systems safe,” Smith said. Once there, they worked very hard to communicate with first responders, including other utilities. It was important not to get in the way of others who were trying to do similar work. On several occasions, Alagasco employees worked with first responders during the initial response to assist those injured during the storm. After the immediate crisis following the storm, employees provided food and drink to first responders and volunteers.
“It was a remarkable response and reaction that they provided and I couldn’t be more proud to speak for them,” said Smith.
Some of the employees had relatives or friends who were killed. Nine employees lost their homes and 33 others suffered damages, typically trees on their homes. Smith himself was temporarily trapped at home because so many trees had fallen in his yard. Nor was there power at his home for a week. Like his employees and customers he was so worried about, Smith was leading the team while living without some of the comforts of home that we take for granted.
It’s also typical of local utilities that deal with the public on a regular basis, he agreed.
“On the whole, it is reflective of most utilities because the majority of employees understand the public service responsibility that we have to ensure we’re providing our product safely, effectively and reliably. There’s a pride factor for ensuring that what we do every day is done the right way.”
Smith said the company grew through this event in a number of significant ways that has inevitably drawn employees closer together.
“We grew through this in a lot of different ways, even to the point of assistance in the way employees pulled together to raise money for our fellow employees who had homes damaged,” Smith said. Employees donated more than $50,000 which the company matched to make it $100,000 and it was given to those employees were lost all or part of their homes due to the storms.
Number of customers lost
Division Birmingham Tuscaloosa Total
Gas Service Lost During Storm 2400 2100 4500
Completely Destroyed 1000 1400 2400
Turned Off For Extensive Repair 600 500 1100
Turned On (within 4 days) 800 200 1000
Of the 2,400 customers that were completely lost it is hard to know how many may rebuild since redevelopment opportunities are still being evaluated in some of the hardest-hit areas. Immediately after the tornadoes, Alagasco began communicating marketing incentives for gas appliances among many other community assistance efforts.
The company has a history of working with customers who have difficulties paying their bills. In some instances, final bills were forgiven for those who lost their homes. Officials said they communicated with customers regularly after the storm to suggest they call the Contact Center for help if they were impacted by the storm and were having trouble paying their bill.
Since the initial destruction, Alagasco has kept teams of employees involved in the clean-up of debris and also working with community organizations to develop and implement a long-term recovery plan. For those who lost appliances, Alagasco has offered a series of rebates designed to reimburse the cost of buying and installing new gas appliances.