IOWA DERECHO 2020

Inside Swamp Fox: Scramble after derecho to restore key Marion substation

Utility crews pulled off half a year's work in just days

Utility workers inspect a lattice structure Aug. 16 that did not have any structural damage and connect wires from the n
Utility workers inspect a lattice structure Aug. 16 that did not have any structural damage and connect wires from the new poles near East Post Road and Meadowview Drive in Marion. (Submitted photo)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Mayuri Farlinger had about an hour’s notice before the worst storm she’s seen in her career. She “hunkered down” in the safest room of Alliant Energy’s operations building on Shaver Road NE and made calls to other employees to come in as soon as possible before the storm hit.

“That wind was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” said Farlinger, director of operations for Alliant’s east region.

An hour later, her building lost three quarters of its roof. Wet ceiling tiles were falling, fire alarms were sounding because of dust, natural gas was leaking, a downed power line blocked the parking lot and vehicles outside were totaled.

“It was insane,” she said. “That’s kind of how this whole thing started. ... It was kind of, where do we even start here?”

The incredulous scene Aug, 10 on Shaver Road NE was just the start of a long couple of weeks ahead of Alliant and other utilities. While crews were working across Eastern Iowa to restore the power grid, one Alliant substation in Marion had a particularly unusual set of challenges as crews raced to bring back power to about 9,500 customers served there.

ITC Midwest, the Central Iowa Power Cooperative and Alliant worked to re-energize the Swamp Fox substation off Highway 100 — a project that would usually take six to eight months — in six days instead.

Alliant couldn’t simply just flip the switch to restore power. Two major lines feed into the Swamp Fox substation. ITC Midwest owns one. CIPCO owns the other.

Both saw significant damage — far worse than anyone has seen.

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“I can’t remember a time when we’ve had a summer storm like this,” said Corey Proctor, manager of design engineering at ITC Midwest. “If we have a tornado, it’s really localized.”

CIPCO officials agreed.

“A tornado is not going to be on the ground for 225 miles,” said Joe Feld, manager of system operations for CIPCO.

Proctor said six or seven ITC Midwest lines went out in 2018 when an EF-3 tornado hit Marshalltown. This time, 145 lines went out.

“This was hopefully a once-in-a-generation storm,” Proctor said.

Problems with spotty phone service created a “rather large communication gap,” Proctor said, slowing ITC Midwest’s damage assessment.

ITC Midwest needed to rely on satellite phones to relay important information, which comes with some limitations.

“You have to be outside, so it was good the weather was nice” after the storm passed, Proctor said. “They’re not as convenient as a cellphone.”

In some cases, CIPCO crews drove from one place to another to communicate, said Terry Fett, director of engineering for CIPCO.

At the same time, CIPCO’s Feld said the lines were hard to get to because of their location.

“You don’t just find the larger poles like that with the snap of your fingers,” Feld said. “You have to do a little digging to find them.”

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Feld said problems also came up with getting fuel for trucks or finding restrooms — “things you take for granted” — with so many places closed from the storm.

Proctor said crews could start repairing Swamp Fox on Aug. 11, the day after the storm. But the repairs were far more complicated than just bending something back into place or rebuilding a structure.

Proctor said Swamp Fox was “the hardest to get to” among the substations ITC Midwest needed to restore.

Some of the towers affected were lattice structures — large metal structures with a grid-like design holding up high-voltage lines.

“It’s an older-style transmission pole that would’ve been used in the 50s or 60s for this voltage,” Proctor said. “We wouldn’t build it this way today.”

ITC Midwest no longer uses lattice structures and does not keep spares on hand. So the company had to create a totally new design.

Designing new power pole structures isn’t a fast process. It requires designing and putting in a foundation, looking at soil and concrete properties and finding a pole capable of handling the high-voltage lines.

ITC Midwest had a pole that would work, but it was in Michigan.

“You’re three states away, so there’s some time (spent) getting the pole here,” Proctor said. “These designed poles take time to produce.”

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But the situation could’ve been much worse. If the pole wasn’t in stock, the couple days it took to get the pole to Iowa would’ve turned into four to six weeks.

“We keep emergency spares for that reason,” Proctor said.

Usually, the foundation would take 21 days to set. That forced ITC to use a higher-strength concrete that would take only one day to be ready. That leaves little margin for error when embedding anchor bolts and a rebar cage in the concrete as it’s poured.

“It’s a real dance when you’re at that point,” Proctor said. “You have to have a really experienced crew.”

As crews handled 16-plus hour shifts, ITC Midwest and CIPCO equipment began malfunctioning.

“The equipment should’ve worked. ... Generally they get serviced every night,” Proctor said. “But maybe there was service that was missed just because of the number of trucks that needed service.”

That meant having to help each other out.

“We had a hard time getting a couple inspections in because of machinery breakdowns,” Proctor said. “When (CIPCO) began to have machinery issues, we kicked ours into high gear just to really try to get that substation into service.”

At the same time, this was far from the only project the three utility companies had. Proctor’s team was working on “30 or 40” other designs while also making the Swamp Fox repair.

“That’s about six months of work,” Proctor said.

When CIPCO re-energized the substation on Aug. 16 through its line, Alliant had made all of the necessary repairs to restore service to the 9,500 affected customers. The ITC Midwest line was repaired later.

Farlinger said Alliant wanted to “make sure that when we got power, we were ready to go.” Alliant had more than 100 workers in the Swamp Fox area alone.

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Feld’s “huge sigh of relief” from power being restored didn’t last long. The next day, a failed lightning arrester took out power again.

This time, it took closer to six hours than six days to fix. “It was an easy fix,” Proctor said.

The utilities had help from utility crews as far away as Georgia.

“It would’ve taken a lot longer to put the equipment back up in the air without the extra crews,” Proctor said.

CIPCO also received an assist from some people armed with spatulas instead of screwdrivers.

“Some of the crews had some pretty decent home-cooked meals during that,” Fett said.

One Marion family brought a grill on wheels and made pork burgers for the workers. Feld said it was “quite the meal” and “not a common occurrence” during storm repairs.

“The linemen got really excited when they saw people coming out to help them,” Fett said. “It did help logistically. too. because the first week we had problems locating food for everybody because stores and everything were closed.”

The work is not done for the three companies, but crews now are working more regular hours.

“We are still working on some areas where we had storm damage and got it fixed for power, but we are going to go back and do some more work to then strengthen it and make sure we didn’t miss anything the first time through,” Proctor said.

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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