One Year Later: Lessons from Superstorm Sandy

Many of us remember where we were a year ago this month, when Superstorm Sandy inflicted approximately $65 billion of damage across North America’s most densely populated corridor. It tore through southeast Florida on October 22 and by October 29 it was devastating New York City and the surrounding area. 159 Americans lost their lives to the storm.

For more than 700 Canadian utility workers and contractors across Canada, the stories of what they experienced are very personal. Sent into the hardest hit areas, many were met with gratitude by cold and weary residents who saw the men and women in orange vests as a lifeline — strangers who had come from across the international border to provide light, warmth and comfort.

Hydro-Québec teams at the Canada-United States border en route to the United States after Superstorm Sandy (photo: Hydro-Québec).

I am proud to say that our industry’s response to Superstorm Sandy was the most effective and well-coordinated in recent memory – very likely, it was unprecedented. Consider the following:

    • Preparation: The first Canadian crews crossed the border on October 29, 2012, while Sandy was still pummeling the New York region.
    • Communication: I and other senior Canadian executives participated in daily teleconference briefings with key American industry leaders and senior government officials – including President Obama on one very memorable call – to ensure that the call for assistance was being heard by CEA’s member utilities right across the country.
    • Organization: Some crews stayed in the region for as long as 25 days, requiring a steady supply of work orders, materials, access to equipment, and food.
    • Execution: Ontario’s Hydro One moved 149 vehicles across the Canada-U.S. border in under 90 minutes – an average of 30-40 seconds per vehicle.

In December 2012 I had the distinct pleasure of accepting a very Canadian token of gratitude from then U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson, on behalf of the Canadian electric utility industry.  While all Canadian utilities performed exceptionally well south of the border, the particular efforts of Hydro One and Hydro-Québec earned each the Edison Electric Institute’s 2012 Emergency Assistance Award. This is the second time Hydro One has been honoured for its cross-border assistance, after becoming the first non-US recipient in 2007.

A Hydro-Québec employee greets an employee of National Grid post-Superstorm Sandy (photo: Hydro-Québec).

Many CEA members have had Mutual Assistance Agreements in place with U.S. utilities for well over a decade, implemented to provide reciprocal assistance and support in the event of major disruptions and outages.  American utility crews have assisted Canadian utilities, most notably during the 1998 ice storm.

On both sides of the border, the existing emergency response system worked quite well, but of course there is always room for improvement. For instance, the existing Regional Mutual Assistance Group networks have been very effective at bringing additional resources to affected areas for many years, but Superstorm Sandy had a much larger geographic impact than we had ever seen before. This revealed some weaknesses which needed to be addressed. In the past twelve months, the industry has made important headway in addressing these gaps:

    • CEA has initiated a National Mutual Assistance Working Group to identify areas for improvement, share best practices, and put into place a national mutual assistance agreement.
    • Hydro One and CEA have spearheaded a successful effort to streamline personnel and equipment border crossing rules during a declared emergency.
    • I continue to participate in a forum of senior industry leaders from across the U.S. (approximately 50 CEOs) who are focused on improving response times and resource allocation during times of crisis.
    • CEA member utilities continue to work within their existing Regional Mutual Assistance Groups to improve regional response capabilities.  When it comes to helping each other, we want the border to be as seamless as it is for electricity itself.

Those who have lived through a weather event as devastating as Superstorm Sandy know that once the storm hits, saving lives and re-establishing normalcy hinges on preparation, communication, organization and execution. We could not have asked more from the 700 Canadian linemen, forestry professions and heavy equipment operators who worked around the clock in the days following Superstorm Sandy. Now, in preparation for the next superstorm, flood, wildfire, or ice storm, utility and government professionals across Canada and the U.S. are working hard to improve disaster response efficiency and safety. We continue to take this commitment very seriously.

Jim Burpee is President and CEO of the Canadian Electricity Association.