From the February 2020 print edition
Natural disasters are becoming a common occurrence. Wild fires in California and Australia or hurricanes in the Caribbean have a wide impact on people, wildlife and to the environment we live in.
A severe multi-day storm last October plunged many parts of Manitoba into darkness on Canada’s Thanksgiving long weekend. The wet snow and strong winds caused extreme damage to Manitoba Hydro’s electrical system, which left over 100 transmission towers and nearly 4,000 wooden utility poles broken and crumpled, taking down almost 1,000kms of power line and leaving over 266,000 customers without power.
The groundwork to deal with such events begins in advance, with businesses having emergency management plans in place that will enable them to effectively respond to a major emergency and continue to conduct business
as normally as possible.
Based on a worsening weather forecast, Manitoba Hydro began preparations a day in advance of the storm’s arrival. Emergency plans for key resources such as operations, IT, risk management and supply chain were launched.
Taking care of the heroes
After the storm passed and as the full extent of the damage became evident, the Government of Manitoba declared a state of emergency, allowing Manitoba Hydro to activate—for the first time in the utility’s history—mutual aid agreements with neighbouring utilities including Hydro One, SaskPower and Minnesota Power. They were instrumental to the restoration effort, not only in terms of manpower, but also the specialty vehicles and repair supplies they brought.
As over 1,000 field staff mobilized on short notice and as crews began pouring in to work in remote areas, there was an urgent need to feed and house them. And with staff working 14- to 16-hour days, accommodations had to be provided within reasonable distance to allow proper rest – with the ability to provide hot meals in the morning and evening. That’s no easy feat at the drop of a hat.
“When we realized hotels would be filling with evacuees, I started calling everyone I could about what mobile work camps could be available,” said Sherry Scott Lemke of Manitoba Hydro’s procurement operations department.
Within days, commercial camps were sourced and set up for over 900 staff at five locations near the work sites.
As equipment and material was required across the province, temporary on-site distribution locations were set up to support the operations crews, vendors and other support services. Employees switched gears from their usual jobs and tracked down and coordinated everything from porta-potties, to boot-dryers, socks, underwear and hip waders, as well as bringing in fuel for vehicles (since many gas stations were not operational), gravel and landscaping equipment to make parking pads for camp trailers, and propane to heat the trailers—not to mention setting up laundry and Wi-Fi.
“The amount that was accomplished was nothing short of incredible,” said Jim Law of Manitoba Hydro’s Construction rural department who, along with many others, worked to help manage and supply the camp and the crews with the things they required.
Due to the complexity of the transmission and distribution systems, a vast amount of replacement parts had to be sourced in a very tight timeframe.
“Without the necessary materials to repair infrastructure, crews would not have been able to make the quick progress that they did,” said Andy Larson, of Manitoba Hydro’s central warehouse.
The role of the materials management department was to get the necessary materials to where the crews needed them, wherever in the province that may have been.
“On the Saturday of the storm it felt like mayhem,” said Larson. “Materials were required on a scale we had never seen before. But we focused our efforts. We put our resources to those tasks and it became controlled mayhem.”
The team at materials management did three important things to make the most of their resources.
Firstly, they contacted existing suppliers, asking those suppliers to reach out to other utilities to source materials, and to reach out to other suppliers that Manitoba Hydro may not deal with directly.
“Suppliers were extremely cooperative, filling orders within the day and giving priority to our orders,” said Larson.
Secondly, they moved supplies in and out quickly.
“We shipped out most of our stuff immediately. We were running into empty shelves and we had to get our vendors to start coming in on a holiday weekend,” said Kristi Arbuckle of materials management. “As soon as it hit our floor, it was right back out the door again.”
Lastly, nothing went to waste.
“We had crews working out in the field salvaging all the material that they could. That helped us immensely,” said Larson. “Once we recovered these materials, we sorted them, and shipped what was useful to where it was needed.
While Manitoba Hydro still had to restore multiple transmission lines (required to meet winter heating loads and restore system reliability), all communities that lost power were restored within two weeks and evacuated residents were able to return home.
It was an impressive amount of work considering the extent of the damage in challenging conditions. In fact, in January, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) presented Manitoba Hydro with the association’s “Emergency Recovery Award” for its outstanding power restoration efforts.
“Manitoba Hydro’s work to restore service safely and quickly to customers, often in dangerous conditions, makes them deserving of this award,” said EEI president Tom Kuhn. “Their efforts exemplify the high standards our industry seeks to uphold, and I applaud their commitment to their customers.”
In the weeks after the storm, Manitoba Hydro conducted lessons learned. Here are some of the highlights related to supply chain:
The value of partnerships – Several suppliers supported the effort by drawing on inventory from other utilities or deferring orders. One supplier kept their plant open during the weekend to manufacture additional required products.
Flexibility of the team – Employees stepped up to the challenge, adapting quickly and taking on other duties as required. They also had to readjust plans and make decisions on the fly as the situation and therefore priorities changed hour by hour. For example, shifting work crews to other locations required a quick coordination to transport people, equipment and material.
Access to the latest information –The situation was changing constantly, so having daily update meetings (morning and night) allowed teams to react quickly to potential risks and mitigate them efficiently.
Solid communication – through social media and news, Manitoba Hydro made customers aware of the magnitude and complexity of the restoration effort. This helped customers remain understanding about the longer-than-usual outages -so understanding in fact that the support from customers was unprecedented: at times cooking for crews in their areas and sending hundreds of messages of encouragement as just two examples.
While the storm strained the supply chain to the limit, the dedicated and skilled employees throughout Manitoba Hydro—with the help of their suppliers, neighbouring utilities and communities—focused their efforts and went above and beyond to restore power to their customers. That teamwork is what helped them accomplish such a monumental restoration in such little time.