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Restoring electricity just part of battle

A sleep-deprived Christie Miree wearily struggled to get her head around her latest predicament.

No, it wasn't that 90 percent of the customers served by her employer, Gulf Power Co., were without electricity immediately after Hurricane Ivan struck.

And no, it wasn't that so many hotels and restaurants had been knocked out of commission that there wasn't enough space to house and feed a few thousand utility linemen and tree trimmers who were flooding the area to begin the enormous restoration project.

Instead, the problem Tuesday was that her plan to accommodate all those linemen so they could restore electricity to all those customers had developed a significant hole.

Miree, Gulf Power's distribution manager, had worked around the clock to arrange the hasty construction of three "tent cities," each designed to house hundreds of workers.

But as workers erected the massive sheets of beige canvas into tents, they discovered that the capacity of each tent was far short of the manufacturer's claims. It wasn't 800, it was more like 300.

About the only way you could fit 800 people under one of those things, Miree said, is if their cots were "lined up like cord wood."

Added to the endless list of things to do: order more tents.

Hurricane Ivan wrought unprecedented damage to Gulf Power's infrastructure. In addition to blacking out power to nine of 10 Gulf Power customers, half the company's transmission lines were out of commission. About 85 percent of the main distribution lines that carry electricity from substations to local neighborhoods weren't working. Crist Plant, a Pensacola power complex that accounts for roughly half the utility's total generating capacity, was knocked out.

But getting the lights back on is only part of the challenge. Just as daunting is the logistical riddle of accommodating and supporting the roughly 3,000 line and tree crew members from other companies lending a hand.

That's where Miree and a virtual army of other Gulf Power employees and supervisors come in.

Their task has been made infinitely more complicated by a string of bad breaks, including Ivan's arrival so soon after Hurricanes Charley and Frances smashed into other parts of the state. Add to that the sheer scope of the power loss, the lodging shortage, and the initial impassability of many bridges leading to and from Gulf Power's battered home base in Escambia County.

"This isn't like a weather event," Miree says. "This is like a war event. This has crossed the threshold of what is a normal storm restoration."

Gulf Power's experience provides a dramatic illustration of the myriad tasks facing utility companies such as Progress Energy Florida of St. Petersburg and Tampa Electric Co. when they restore electricity after a major storm.

After Ivan's arrival, such tasks piled up with breathtaking speed for Gulf Power. Ivan had terrorized the Caribbean and threatened virtually the entire Florida peninsula before it became clear that Pensacola was in Ivan's sights. In preparation, Gulf Power warned its customers to brace themselves: "The power will be out for weeks _ expect it, prepare for it and tell your neighbors."

Then the utility scrambled to find potential backup aid from electric companies outside the area. But neighboring utilities were making their own preparations for Ivan, an enormous storm, while other Florida power companies farther south were still cleaning up after Frances and holding on to thousands of out-of-state linemen because of worries about Hurricane Jeanne.

That left Gulf Power with commitments for only about 600 extra line and tree-trimming personnel, just a fraction of its projected needs, said Susan Story, the company's president and chief executive.

"Our big worry to begin with was we don't have enough commitments coming in," Story said. "When it became obvious it was so devastated here, I've got to tell you, all of the utilities, including Florida Power & Light, Progress (Energy), all around the Southeast, our sister companies, (they said) "Whatever you need, we will help you.' . . . So the good news was, hey, we've got the (line crew) resources taken care of. The bad news: How are we going to feed them? How are we going to house them?"

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Gulf Power is an investor-owned utility that serves 405,000 customers in Florida's western Panhandle. It is part of Atlanta-based electric conglomerate Southern Co., which also owns Georgia Power, Mississippi Power, Alabama Power, Savannah Electric and other businesses.

Gulf's Pensacola district office on Pace Boulevard doubles as the utility's emergency management center following major storms. Since Ivan, it has done triple-duty as a temporary company headquarters after the corporate offices on Bayfront Parkway sustained heavy flood damage.

In the basement of the emergency management center, the company's distribution operations center, which oversees the power lines that deliver electricity from substations to local neighborhoods, is sharing its quarters with the transmission operations center, which is normally located in the Bayfront Parkway building.

On the third and fourth floors, Gulf Power employees shuttle in and out of various rooms, tending to storm duties. Laminated paper signs tacked to the wall declare the function of each office and meeting room: security; contractor coordination; human resources; food & lodging; procurement; fleet services; accounting & treasury.

Some of these functions, such as securing meals, are unique to emergencies. As Ivan approached, the owner of a local McDonald's franchise confidently informed Gulf Power that his restaurant had never lost power after a storm and that he was prepared to address the utility's food needs, recalled Margaret Neyman, Gulf Power's general manager of marketing, who is serving as team leader for food and lodging.

Sure enough, that McDonald's, as well as virtually every other restaurant and grocery store in the Pensacola area, lost electricity, forcing the company to put the word out to caterers with self-contained refrigeration units. "Send somebody who was in Vietnam," Neyman jokes that she asked caterers, due to treacherous road conditions after Ivan.

On the fourth floor of the emergency management center, Gulf Power senior buyer Joel Moye and his colleagues work to ensure that the company is sufficiently stocked with vital electrical components necessary for rebuilding a local electricity grid. They also track office trailers, communication equipment and, lately, portable toilets.

The oddball stuff has been relatively easy to follow, but chasing down some of the basics that go into an electrical system has become a real chore. Two items that have become particularly hard to come by are fuses and connector sleeves used to splice wire. Moye has been calling and e-mailing parts makers, distributors, fellow utilities _ anyone who might have what the company is looking for.

"Things like this normally you can get fairly easily," Moye says. "But you know what's been going on in South Florida _ most of this stuff has been spoken for."

One floor below, Diane Harris, Gulf Power's manager of corporate security and risk management, has situated her staff in a small, narrow office with bulletin boards on the wall listing office buildings and staging sites, along with the hours for which security is being sought.

Amid a jumble of soda cans and bottles of water, employees hunch over laptop computers handling requests for personnel and access badges.

Major storms present unique challenges for Harris' department. Protective fences around substations and power plants are often damaged or blown away, posing a risk both to company property and curious passers-by. Escorts are needed for line crews to break through traffic congestion created by dead traffic lights, impassable streets and sightseers.

And emotions can run high during extended power outages, requiring personnel to shield linemen and other employees in the field from the distractions of understandably frustrated customers.

"Often it gets volatile because they want their power back on," Harris says.

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Every morning at 7:30 during Gulf Power's restoration efforts, Rich Mandes, general manager of power delivery, transmission and distribution, convenes a meeting with chief executive Story and about 16 supervisors to review the previous day's work, discuss what's ahead and bounce ideas off one another.

By Tuesday morning, the start of the company's sixth day of post-Ivan restoration work, it had become clear to Mandes that all the long hours were starting to take a toll on the troops.

"We're not going to be good to anybody if we don't get out of this building and walk around, take some time, hug our families, talk to our loved ones," he tells his colleagues. "That's just absolutely critical to maintaining the kind of pace that we're trying to keep up here."

Sitting next to Mandes was Miree, who could have used a break herself. A former assistant to Southern's executive vice president of transmission planning and operations, the 35-year-old Brewton, Ala., native joined Gulf Power last year to become the company's distribution manager in charge of overseeing the maintenance of the power lines that deliver electricity to homes and businesses. Soon after the move, she became a mother for the first time, giving birth to twin boys, Zack and Josh.

Since Ivan's arrival, Miree has been contending with a high-pressure responsibility of a different sort: ensuring that the sudden influx of visiting linemen and tree trimmers have a place to eat, stay and clean up.

It has been maddeningly difficult. At first, some linemen had to sleep in their trucks or on the floors of local shelters and Gulf Power office buildings. Where the utility managed to book hotel rooms, many were without electricity or hot water. And having large blocks of hotel rooms occupied by utility lineman was drawing flak from some local residents who needed lodging, too.

To make way for locals in dire need of a place to stay and to prevent the planning headaches of having line crews scattered in far-flung accommodations, Miree had tent cities built at Corry Station Naval Technical Training Center in Pensacola, the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds and the Avalon Boulevard Industrial Park in Milton. That required getting the tents equipped with air conditioning, portable showers and toilets, cots, sheets and catering services, then getting the linemen who had hotel rooms checked out and moved in to their new canvas homes.

Since moving into the tent cities last Monday and Tuesday, some linemen and tree trimmers have grumbled about the accommodations. It's a situation that leaves Miree frustrated but empathetic.

"If you had to move out of a hotel and live on a cot in a tent, that's not an ideal circumstance," she said. "We're just trying to make sure that everybody understands what we're facing with the infrastructure in Pensacola."

Miree, whose tireless work has drawn praise from colleagues, has sought comfort where she can find it. Last week, her husband returned from his mother's home in northern Alabama with Miree's 10-month-old boys.

"I slept with the twins in bed," she said the next day. "So I was awake half the night, holding my children."