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One-two punch from hurricane, floods inflict unmatched damage

Lineworkers near the town of Coward face water challenges as they work to restore power.

The “slow grind” of repairing hundreds, often thousands, of individual damages to power supply points challenged several electric cooperatives Thursday, as they worked to restore electricity to the remaining 30,000 powerless electric cooperative consumers.

The massive scale of the damage—first by the wind of Hurricane Matthew and then by the rising floodwaters of overflowing rivers in the Pee Dee region—took the repair effort into its fifth day of repairs.

Horry, Pee Dee and Santee electric cooperatives faced the biggest job. They serve the eight counties with the most remaining outages, including the greater Florence area and extending toward Georgetown and Myrtle Beach.

Cooperative executives described three key challenges to the restoration work:

The type of repairs remaining. Though some large circuits still must be restored, many repairs now call for work at homes and businesses, where repair crews address single or small groups of outages rather than hundreds or thousands. Service lines to homes require much more manpower-per-outage-restored than high-voltage lines serving large areas.

“It’s a grind,” said Brian Kelley, CEO of Pee Dee Electric Cooperative in Darlington. “We want so much to restore every member as fast and safely as possible, but the number of distribution lines affected can really slow us down.”

Getting there. The sheer scale of the still-rising water in low-lying areas causes cooperatives to seek alternative approaches to repairs. Employees are “riding the lines” in motor boats to look for damage, a slower and more difficult assessment method.

“Assessments are one thing, but repairs in a flooded area are another thing altogether,” said Rob Ardis, CEO of Santee Electric Cooperative.

Some of the areas are still inaccessible for bucket trucks and the digger derricks used to install poles. And some of the accessible areas are soggy and very difficult to reach.

Underground underwater. Consumers often think underground power lines are totally safe from storms, but there’s more to the story. True, underground systems usually escape the ravages of wind and falling trees. But severe flooding still can damage pad-mounted transformers, those green boxes in the corners of subdivision yards that replace the round transformers commonly seen hanging on power poles.

“That’s why we proactively cut the power to Kiawah Island as the storm approached,” said Berkeley Electric Cooperative CEO Dwayne Cartwright from his Moncks Corner office.

Only a few hundred Berkeley members remain without power Thursday, and Kiawah Island was turned on again with fewer equipment problems than would have been the case if the proactive measures had not been taken.

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Real-time outage information—by county or by electric cooperative—is available at www.ecsc.org.

Twenty independent, member-owned electric cooperatives build and maintain the state's largest power-distribution system. More than 74,000 miles of co-op power lines cover 70 percent of the state — more than all the other utilities in S.C. combined.

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