Coleman County Electric Co-op was busy 24/7 beginning immediately after 3 tornadoes struck the area on the morning of May 18th, “We deploy as soon as we know the situation,” says Coleman County Electric Co-op CEO and general manager, Clint Gardener. “We determine the best way to get the electricity back on. Every storm is different. We always try to get anyone on life support and residences on first. If they are going to be without power for a long time , we call and notify them up front,” Gardener points as he keeps glancing at a television tuned to The Weather Station mounted on the wall in his office. Over Gardener’s shoulder a computer monitor plays a continuous weather radar loop, evidence of his commitment to being informed about the weather at all times.
Gardener is a quiet man, easy to talk to and obviously an effective leader and worthy overseer of Coleman County Co-op’s customers. He absolutely in being prepared at all times, even ahead of storms, “If we expect severe weather, we always stock up on material ahead of time. We get our materials from the Texas Electric Co-op. They have a warehouse in Abilene and that material originally comes from the Texas Co-op warehouse in Georgetown.”
The tornadoes that struck the area on the morning of May 18th, one in eastern Runnels County, one in Ballinger and one in Silver valley, they destroyed hundreds of electric poles. That afternoon I called the co-op to ask about them restoring power and was told that power could be off until 6 p.m. Monday afternoon. The lady who answered the phone at the co-op told me that the crews were moving in truckloads of poles and every crew was working in the area. The power came on 12 hours later just a few minutes after midnight, at 12:05 a.m. A tremendous feat considering the amount of damage done by the Ballinger tornado alone, a tornado that was on the ground for 19 miles across farmland, homes, Ballinger Country Club and the Ballinger High School baseball fields.
The twister snapped some electric poles in half and ripped others completely out of the ground, “We had an entire line of poles completely ripped out of the ground and we never found those poles or the electric lines.” Many homes and businesses in Ballinger had power back on within an hour. Others, in more remote areas, had their power back on within 12-18 hours, “We try not to waste any movement, every action we take has a purpose. Some lines we can back-feed as we rebuild the line.”
By 7 a.m. Sunday office workers from the co-op were calling residents to find out if they had power. Gardener says that it was a team effort from the line crews to the office staff, “Communication is important. People see the linemen out in the field but they don’t see the office people who also work 18 hours a day. If we are called about the power being out, we always call back to ensure it’s back on after we’ve done the work. We hate it when our members go through a loss of power. I’m proud of how our linemen, office staff and crews from other co-ops worked so hard and smoothly to restore power.”
The co-op is keyed on customer service, “Our members, we call our customers ‘members’, are very important to us. We do everything that we can do for our members. Very few were frustrated after the tornadoes but of them understood that we were doing all that we could. Our explanations to our members have to be true and correct.”
All across the county you could see bucket trucks with linemen working to restore power. Many worked well into the night, “Safety is first. We don’t want anyone injured so we try to bring in the linemen to get some sleep. They’d finish about 3 a.m., get back here, go home and then be back here at 6:30 a.m., because they’re dedicated to our members as well. They want to get the power back on just as much as our members. They’re dedicated and committed.” Before the crews leave the station for home, they check all of their equipment and fuel up each vehicle, “If our equipment is down, we’re down. It is imperative that we ensure our equipment is up and running. The guys have a checklist and every truck is filled with fuel before they leave at the end of the day.”
One important key to getting the power back on quickly was brining in crews from other co-ops. They have a mutual-aid agreement with other co-ops, “There are 16 other co-ops together with us. If we hear a storm is hitting an area, we’re on the phone with the co-ops in that area. They do the same for us. That phone rings and it’s the manager from another co-op asking me what they can do to help. I’ve been in this business for 37 years and we have some great relationships with the other co-ops and we all meet every other month.”
One aspect that Gardener appreciated was the help from the community, “A huge ‘thank you’ goes out to the people who supplied food and drinks for us. Lowake Steakhouse had a meal for our guys. Alejandra’s helped us out one night. The entire town of Ballinger was great to us and we truly appreciate it. Here in Coleman, Don Luis café and Buddy’s convenience store were great to us.”
The command post for the Ballinger tornado was set up in the parking lot at Buddy’s Plant Plus. Jeff Smith and a team of volunteers teamed up to cook food and provide hot food and cold drinks to everyone helping out with the tornado response. Volunteers delivered cases of water, Gatorade and plates of hot food were delivered to linemen across the county as they worked to restore power.
The work is not over. The linemen worked for 6 days, 16-18 hours each day before they were able to have a day off. On that day, other crews came in to continue the work. They are still replacing poles and lines, “Just yesterday we found 16 poles that were down. We’ll continue to find those. You can plan for contingencies but you can’t plan for events like the tornado.”
One aspect that helped the co-op out with receiving reports and distributing information was social media, “It (social media) helped us so much. Kudus to Ballinger and the Chamber of Commerce for their help. They helped us a great deal with social media and they were absolutely fantastic.
Residents can take preventive steps to help keep from having weather events knock out their power, “Keep the trees trimmed and keep the limbs and branches out of the electric lines. A lot of outages are caused by trees and limbs falling on wires. Also, if someone sees an electric line on the ground, stay away from it and call us immediately. If they see a broken pole or stuff hanging on a line, call us immediately.” People should take extreme care if they are trimming tree limbs in the areas of electric lines.
Gardener said that he appreciates the members’ understanding, “We just want to thank everyone for all that they did. Their understanding and patience was fantastic. We appreciate it and thank our personnel and visiting crews as well. It was a very smooth operation and everyone involved worked very hard.”