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Restoring power: Not a flick of the switch

By Mariano Castillo CNN | 2/12/2014, 4:02 p.m.
A mixture of snow and ice blankets downtown Atlanta Wednesday morning, February 12, 2014. Photo by Jamie White/CNN.

ATLANTA - The lights go out.

You know the drill: Call the utility company. Wait for their trucks. Maybe complain about how long it takes.

Outages suck, but you might be surprised to learn how much energy it takes to restore energy during the middle of an ice storm like the one the South is currently enduring.

In Georgia, where the greatest number of outages have been reported and are growing, not only are utility trucks on the streets, but a whole cadre of behind-the-scenes players are coordinating housing, food and other logistics for thousands of out-of-state workers who arrived to help restore power.

The help from other states is essential to restoring power.

"But where are they going to sleep, what food are they going to eat?" asks Steve Lewis, logistics director at Georgia Power.

That is the challenge that he and a team at the utility company have to solve on the fly.

Georgia Power provides energy to about 2.4 million customers, many of whom awoke to find their streets looking like the world's largest snow cone had spilled on them.

As the ice storm rolled into Georgia, a room typically kept dark and empty -- Georgia Power's Storm Center -- sprang to life.

There were voices chattering, keyboards clacking and newscasts projected onto a wall. Intense, but not chaotic.

"People don't realize all the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on so our people can be in the field," Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said.

With an extra 2,500 to 3,000 outside workers added to the ranks, everything from lodging to laundry to fuel becomes a challenge, he said.

The storm center is where decisions that affect customers are made, such as where staging areas will be set up and where supplies to repair poles and power lines will come from.

But there is no secret formula. You might feel that your neighborhood is being neglected, but the utility company claims it is unbiased.

Its priorities, Kraft says, are areas where vital community services, such as hospitals or water treatment facilities, have lost power. After that, it basically targets the areas with the largest number of affected customers and works its way down.

The storm center includes an internal system that reports on outages circuit by circuit, but there is no lack of transparency. Anyone can visit the company's outage map and see where the largest blackouts are.

At the storm center, there is someone in charge of manpower and forestry.

Power lines can usually withstand some ice accumulation, Kraft explained, but tree limbs can break under the weight and knock out lines. So that forestry position in the storm center is key, he said.

One of the challenges on Wednesday for Lewis, the logistics director, was finding a bus company in Atlanta willing to transport workers to their hotels in this weather.

Finding a bus line with chains handy to handle the icy conditions is not easy, but Lewis is confident something will turn up.

"We'll find a solution by tonight," he said.

He works on a team of creative people who tackle challenges that seem insurmountable at the outset, he said.

The difficulty is not just in providing the food and lodging to workers. Another challenge is that the weather can suddenly shift, and those resources must be moved elsewhere quickly, he said.

"It's very stressful on a normal storm. On a storm of this magnitude, it is extremely stressful," Lewis said.

Maybe you are reading this on a smartphone because the electricity is out.

You know the drill.

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