October 17, 2019

Electric Department honored - Daily Leader Extra : Local News

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Posted: Tuesday, October 8, 2019 3:17 pm

Madison Utility Services Coordinator Tess Nelson was in Green Bay, Wis., for a work conference when she received a notification at 3:45 a.m. that some of her neighbors back home were being evacuated due to severe flooding.

After checking in with her family, she called Madison Electric Utility Foreman Jerry Seitz and informed him of the situation.

Seitz and the rest of the city's Electric Department answered the call of duty at 4 a.m. and spent the next week and a half tirelessly working to inspect and repair the city's electric system and restore power to portions of the city.

"I think our community is very lucky to have this crew," Nelson said. "They went to work that morning, no questions asked, and didn't consider stopping until our utility director sent them home to get rest late into the evening. They continued until everything was back to business as usual. They worked hard as a team, and I really appreciate that."

For their service and commitment both during the city's recent flood and year-round, the Madison Electric Department has been named this year's recipient of Heartland Consumers Power District's Distinguished Service Award.

"Public power communities are known for their dedicated employees, and Madison is no exception," said Heartland CEO Russell Olson. "This award is typically granted to an individual, but the entire department went above and beyond in this situation, and we are proud of all their efforts. They each deserve this award."

Heavy rain leads to outages

Two nights of heavy rain totaling over 11 inches took its toll, leaving a large portion of Madison severely flooded with water continuing to rise. While emergency personnel rescued stranded motorists and evacuated homes, the Electric Department fought its own battle.

"We lost the first circuit at 3:53 a.m.," Seitz said. "This particular circuit powered much of the northwest corner of town as well as our water tower, which the city and county use for radio transmission. When that went down, they lost their communication system."

About 20 minutes later, a second circuit blew that powered much of the southeast corner of town.

"Our city operates 14 electric circuits," Seitz said. "The two we lost happen to be the biggest, powering extremely large areas. About half the town was without power."

Safety first

Upon inspection, Seitz discovered the switching boxes controlling the circuits were under water. Nothing could be done to those boxes in that condition, so the crew had to improvise.

Seitz and his team worked on restoring power to priority areas -- Main Street, the water tower and Lewis Drug, which houses the city's only pharmacy.

To do this, they had to drive to each switch box location to determine which boxes could accommodate the dead circuits. Seitz said his team drove through high levels of water and sometimes blocks or miles out of the way to get to the boxes.

"At one point there was a fire at St. John's Church and we needed to de-energize the building and inspect the basement. The water level on the street was up to my bumper, but we had no choice. There was over four feet of water on their switch gear and the water temperature was extremely hot. It could have been a much worse situation," he said.

Meanwhile, another team of workers went door to door to check buildings and homes that needed to be re-energized.

"We were not going to restore power without personally checking the location first," Seitz said. "Safety was our number one priority."

Working together

Coincidentally, City Utility Director Brad Lawrence and several other Public Works Department employees were out of town during the early stages of the flooding.

"It was bad timing to have so many people gone, but everyone stepped up," Nelson said.

Roxie Ebdrup, public works administrative coordinator, manned the office and became the point of contact between staff, crews and citizens. She took hundreds of phone calls from residents, assuring them that crews were working to restore power as quickly and as safely as possible. Nelson helped the team from Wisconsin by coordinating efforts and keeping the public informed.

"I was sharing information and posting updates, maps and pictures of circuits or other damage on our social media as often as possible," Nelson said.

Nelson's attendance at the conference in Green Bay actually worked in the city's favor.

The city lost a third circuit that took out local manufacturer Manitou Group-Gehl and the hospital. They needed a replacement switch to get those businesses back up and running, but the spare was already being used from the first outages.

It just so happened that their vendor was at the same conference, so Nelson was able to connect with him immediately. He was able to track one down in Marshall, Minn., so they could pick it up just a few days later.

"That is exactly what is great about this industry," she said. "There is cooperation among utilities. We are always willing to help one another."

Getting back to normal

It was at least 10 days before everything was back to normal.

Seitz estimates his crew visited around 350 homes, talking to owners, inspecting equipment and ultimately pulling meters or restoring power.

"According to the 500-year flood map, there are roughly 325 electric meters in the flood zone," Nelson said. "We found many homes beyond the zone flooded, as well as homes that had no water in their basement but also no power because of the blown circuits. It was a unique situation."

Through it all, the city never fully lost power. The damage to the grid was limited to the three circuits that controlled different areas of town.

"We never intentionally shut off entire circuits," said Seitz. "We only disconnected homes in the flooded region, one at a time, after first checking with the homeowners. We restored power as quickly as possible, only after it was deemed safe."

Recognizing deserving employees

Heartland established the Distinguished Service Award to recognize exceptional employees at Heartland customer utilities. The award is given out during Public Power Week, this year from Oct. 6-12, to help customers and stakeholders understand how they can better engage with their community-owned utility and benefit from all its offerings.

"It's pretty incredible what their crew accomplished in just a few days," said Olson. "Their commitment to their town and emphasis on safety is certainly commendable. Everyone in the department stepped up and all are deserving of this award."

Madison's Electric Department consists of five linemen, an electric foreman, utility director, utility services coordinator and GIS/project engineer. They provide public power to more than 3,300 customers and maintain 85 miles of overhead and underground line throughout the city.

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