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Wisconsin electric co-ops helping Florida rebuild

Complement of Wisconsin linemen and equipment at their staging point in Janesville, Wis. Photo courtesy of Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services1 / 2
Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services linemen Bryon Gilles (left) and Brett Pauly. Photo courtesy of Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services2 / 2

JANESVILLE, Wis. — Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services linemen, Bryon Gilles and Brett Pauly, joined volunteer line crews from 17 other Wisconsin electric cooperatives aiding in Florida's massive recovery effort, helping rebuild shattered electric systems in the wake of Hurricane Irma's devastation.

The Florida Electric Cooperatives Association, a statewide trade group, put out a call for help Sept. 7, anticipating Irma's landfall and the huge storm's potential to simultaneously batter the entire state.

Line superintendents from Wisconsin cooperatives got word of the request at a previously scheduled meeting in Stevens Point and immediately began planning their response, assessing availability of workers and equipment.

Those preparations were completed during a busy weekend. On Sept. 11, co-op vehicles began departing from local headquarters across the state for assembly points at Eau Claire, Oakdale, Portage and Janesville. At least three multi-co-op convoys planned to reach Ste. Genevieve, Mo., by Monday night, and Hattiesburg, Miss., by the night of Sept. 12, arriving in Florida by late afternoon Sept. 13.

All the Wisconsin volunteers are assigned to assist rebuilding at Clay Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Keystone Heights, Fla., northeast of Gainesville, Fla. As of Sept. 11, Clay Electric had approximately 130,000 members — representing about 75 percent of its system — without power.

More than 50 Wisconsin co-op employees were traveling southward. Participating co-ops include Adams-Columbia, Barron, Bayfield, Central Wisconsin and Clark Electric Cooperatives, Dairyland Power Cooperative, Dunn and Eau Claire Energy Cooperatives, Oakdale and Oconto Electric Cooperatives, Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services, Price and Richland Electric Cooperatives, Riverland, Rock, and Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperatives, and Taylor and Vernon Electric Cooperatives.

Anticipating a lengthy rebuilding project, a second round of 24 co-op volunteers had been recruited for later rotation into the damaged area.

More than 40 vehicles were dispatched, including bucket trucks, pole-hauling trailers and digging equipment.

The relief mission is similar to assistance rendered by Wisconsin co-ops 12 years ago following Hurricane Katrina. Personnel from 14 Wisconsin electric cooperatives were dispatched over a four-week period to Louisiana on a rotating basis, helping to rebuild a local co-op distribution system that had been almost totally destroyed.

It's also similar — on a larger scale — to the ROPE (restoration of power in an emergency) program in which Wisconsin co-ops help each other shorten recovery times when severe weather damages local electric systems.

On three previous occasions since this past spring, 10 Wisconsin co-ops have loaned out line crews in ROPE deployments to help others speed up rebuilding of storm-damaged systems.