by Tim Smith
More than 28,000 Belco customers – about 80 per cent of the island – lost power when Hurricane Paulette hit Bermuda two years ago.
Even though restoration efforts were hampered by unpredictable pole fires and damage to power lines from overgrown vegetation, everyone was switched back on within a few days.
Like so many hurricane-related power cuts before it, that grimy spell when we couldn’t have a shower, use our fridge or cook dinner on the stove was quickly forgotten – until the next major storm.
According to Belco, the efficient recovery missions in the aftermath of hurricanes are all thanks to a hard-working team which goes far beyond the crews out on the roads.
Key roles are also played by dispatching staff, teams who help customers reporting outage lines, occupational health safety and environment staff who support field teams, mechanics, plant operators, stores allocating supplies, and even the canteen staff who keep crews fed and hydrated.
A Belco spokesman said: “Once a storm has passed and it is safe to start restoration of any damaged infrastructure, Belco crews work from sunup to often very late hours of the night, often in stifling heat and humidity.
“Work continues according to a specific plan until every customer has had power restored. Main lines must be restored first so that branch lines can then be repaired and finally power is restored to homes.
“If a storm is forecast to impact the island, Belco retirees are alerted to be on standby to assist in restoration efforts if needed as well as the Caribbean Electric Utility Services Corporation and Liberty Power and Utilities Corp should assistance from overseas be required.”
Membership of the CARILEC means that Bermuda often gets much-needed help from overseas.
“There is a mutual assistance programme that sees workers from other islands come to Bermuda to assist in restoration,” the spokesman said.
Belco also has an arrangement with parent company Liberty Power and Utilities Corp, which can send linesmen to assist.
“This didn’t happen last year following Hurricane Paulette due to Covid-19 restrictions, but the assistance is always welcome to get power restored as quickly as possible,” he added.
Preparation begins long before a major storm hits the island.
The spokesman said: “The number one priority for Belco before, during and after a hurricane is always the safety of the company staff and our customers.
“The second priority is to protect the power generation plant and distribution grid from damage.
“During the storm, staff are at the operations centre monitoring and managing the plant and the grid, recording outages and responding to any emergencies that may occur wherever it is safe to do so.
“Once hurricane season begins on June 1, assets typically used during hurricane response, such as poles, transformers and cross arms, are placed in strategic locations in advance so they can be deployed quickly and not be impeded by any obstacles on the island’s roads.
“It’s important to note that Belco never intentionally shuts off power to any customers during a storm.”
Staff are vigorously trained and managed to avoid burnout.
“Safety is the bedrock of everything we do at Belco,” the spokesman said.
“All Belco employees, particularly our frontline workers, undergo safety training to ensure that they can identify hazards and risks in order to respond under adverse conditions.
“As employees of an essential service, Belco staff understand the role that they play in ensuring that the island stays powered on and they take pride in helping the community to get back up and running following a storm.
“Staff work in shifts with mandatory rest periods. In between shifts, staff are encouraged to ensure they are properly nourished, hydrated and rested as often the work carried out following a storm is in hot and humid conditions.
“The health and safety of our employees is always the priority.”
Restoration efforts, of course, begin as soon as it is safe, regardless of the time of day.
“Typically, crews wait until winds have eased to below tropical storm force before an assessment team goes out to survey and record damaged infrastructure,” the spokesman said.
“Once an assessment has been made, a plan of action is determined and crews head out to begin restoration efforts.
“What has assisted in the last two years are Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) meters which automatically record properties that are without power. This information is analysed at Belco headquarters which assists in more accurate data on outages and helps formulate a more robust restoration plan.”
One of the main challenges is gaining access to damaged infrastructure, which can be blocked by debris in the roads or members of the public out sightseeing once a storm has passed.
But feedback from the public is “almost entirely positive”, the spokesman said.
“Customers are usually very helpful and friendly to Belco staff when they are repairing damaged infrastructure.
“During the aftermath of a hurricane, Belco staff certainly appreciate the patience and understanding of the public as crews work to get everyone’s power restored as quickly and safely as possible.”
Check on outages in your area by visiting www.belco.bm and accessing the outage map. Visit belco.bm throughout a storm for up-to-date outage and restoration information.