Two destructive hurricanes in the southeast, only weeks apart, took a numbing toll on our neighbors in Florida, southern Georgia, and the Carolinas. Many lives were lost. Homes and businesses, obliterated. As we have seen so many times following storms of such epic scale, heartbroken survivors return to their devastated communities, only to find their way of life altered for many years to come.
Upper Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation was one of 20 co-ops in Tennessee rushing crews of more than 185 volunteer line workers and equipment to affected areas in the wake of Florence and Michael. Their mission was clear: Restore power to nearly two million storm victims who couldn’t begin to rebuild their lives without it.
Line workers returning from these areas had many stories to share about the people they met and the destruction they witnessed first-hand; agonizing accounts of defeat from tearful residents returning to find everything they had worked for, swept away by a force of nature they could not control. Many of them evacuated with only the clothes on their backs and when allowed to return to what was left of their homes, waded through waist-high water or navigated perilous twelve-foot walls of debris to salvage a few belongings.
The recovery and the grieving process after storms of this magnitude can be so slow that the very sense of community is put on indefinite hold.
As the first few days passed and workers made progress repairing downed lines and poles, they saw signs of this grief-stricken narrative giving way to the triumphant human spirit. Within hours after crews arrived at the scene, they observed neighbor helping neighbor, strangers becoming comrades, all overcome by emotion, yet making preparations to tackle the exhausting chore of clean-up and re-establishment that is expected to take years.
Co-ops are in the business of restoring power and energizing communities.
Literally and figuratively.
In the aftermath of any catastrophic event, the smallest of comforts are embraced. We can only imagine the day-to-day struggle of the victims. Basics become a luxury and time seems to stand still as you helplessly wait for assistance.
But once electricity is restored and you can take a hot shower, charge the cell phone to communicate with loved ones, pump fuel, and eat a warm meal, you gain that sense of being in control again – reclaiming power over your own life. You realize that while it will take time to mend and resume normality, you have taken the first step of the long journey toward renewal.
Repairing, or in this case, rebuilding the entire damaged electrical system, is a monumental job that no single electric company or co-op could possibly tackle alone. Hundreds of line workers and tons of equipment are dispatched from surrounding states to these vicinities prior to landfall of the storm. They live in tents and divide into large teams, navigating heavy digger and bucket trucks through unfamiliar terrain and working in areas strewn with fallen power lines covered in mud and murky water.
Everyone made it back to UCEMC safely and with many stories to tell about the amazing and brave people they met along the way. People who were once strangers, but are now new friends.
It’s dangerous and stressful business, but helping our neighbors in need is the cornerstone of the cooperative spirit.
Restoring that essential electric infrastructure following a catastrophic event eases at least some of the anxiety by allowing residents to return to their communities quickly, begin the process of picking up the pieces, develop a strategy to rebuild, get on with their lives the best they can – and most essentially – get their power back.