Hurricane Ivan caused record outages in Alabama 15 years ago

Hurricane Ivan caused record outages in Alabama 15 years ago
Hurricane Ivan in 2004 caused 825,000 power outages for Alabama Power customers, the most in the company's history. Then-CEO Charles McCrary promised that 99% of customers would have power restored within eight days, and the company kept the promise. (file)

Tim Tavel had many significant, unique issues to deal with during Hurricane Ivan 15 years ago. Tavel then and now manages out-of-town line crews contracted by Alabama Power to help restore electricity after major storms. And what a storm Ivan was – a Category 3 hurricane causing 825,000 outages, the most in company history.

“I had only been on the job six months when Ivan hit and had never worked a storm in that role,” Tavel recalled. “I was very green and scared to death. Here we were looking at a major hurricane to hit our service territory and I was expected to bring in thousands of outside resources to restore power.“

The 2004 hurricane season began June 1. It was one of the latest starts on record, with the first named storm popping up July 31. Three major hurricanes and a tropical storm – including Ivan – hit Florida: Charley, a Category 4 storm, made landfall 100 miles south of Tampa Aug. 13, the day after Tropical Storm Bonnie came ashore in the Panhandle near Apalachicola. Hurricanes Frances and Jean made landfall 52 days apart at the same location 50 miles north of West Palm Beach.

Ivan roared in around Gulf Shores in the wee hours of Thursday, Sept. 16, packing 128 mph winds. It made a beeline through southwest Alabama north to Selma, then curved slightly northeast to hit Birmingham, still packing a punch with 40 mph winds.

Ivan was described in an Alabama Power news release as “a natural disaster of historical proportions.” It stayed a hurricane 150 miles inland, downgraded to a tropical storm at Uniontown in Perry County 12 hours after landfall at Gulf Shores.

A sign reflects a homeowner’s weariness with the succession of hurricanes in 2004. (file)

It spawned a near-record 52-foot wave in the Gulf of Mexico at a buoy 60 miles south of Dauphin Island and brought a storm surge 10-15 feet high and 10 inches of rain along the Alabama coast. The 6-9 inches of rain Ivan dumped on Birmingham was the most in a single day in 100 years.

From the time it started as a tropical depression Sept. 2, Ivan gained Category 5 strength three times. After exiting the Mid-Atlantic states, it looped back around in the Gulf and reformed, finally fading as a tropical depression along the Louisiana coast eight days after making landfall at Gulf Shores.

“I remember driving in the morning after Ivan had made landfall, not knowing what to expect and worried about my wife and kids that I had left to ride out the storm by themselves,” Tavel said. “We ended up having three big oak trees down in our backyard.”

He remembers the wind was so fierce at Corporate Headquarters it blew rain under the windows of a 10th-floor conference room near the Storm Center. Tavel, meanwhile, wasn’t the only greenhorn on deck.

“We had not experienced a statewide major hurricane event since Hurricane Opal in 1995,” recalled Steve Kirkham, general manager of Power Delivery for Mobile Division, who in 2004 was Western Division Distribution support manager.

“Many of the newer engineers at the time had not worked a major storm restoration effort like this.”

But the company adjusted on the fly. Herschel Hale, Tavel’s predecessor, was called in as a contractor to help Tavel coordinate contractors. It proved a daunting task.

Many electric utilities that normally would have rushed to help Alabama Power were already helping Florida Power & Light navigate the damage from Bonnie, Charley and Frances.

“I remember Don Boyd (retired Storm Center director) on the Southeastern Electric Exchange calls navigating through some very intense conversations trying to get Florida to release some companies to come help us,” Tavel said. “If it were not for the respect Don had throughout the industry and his masterful negotiating skills, it would have been days before we could have gotten the help we needed.”

Alabama Power linemen work to restore power in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, which knocked out service to 60% of the company’s customers. (file)

More than 4,000 outside linemen from 27 states were brought in.

For all its bluster, damage ($18 billion) and death (67 died in the Caribbean; 25 in the United States; none in Alabama), Ivan was the catalyst for a sea change in the way Alabama Power did business. Then-CEO Charles McCrary made a bold prediction: Power would be restored to 99% of customers in eight days. Nearly 60% of the company’s customers had no electricity after Ivan struck.

“At that time, we never made promises like that,” McCrary told Powergrams when he retired in 2014, “but I knew we could do it and the customers needed to know what to expect. It set a precedent and was a real turning point.”

And the employees kept McCrary’s promise. Ivan was also a turning point in the relationship between Alabama Power management and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Lineman Bobby Turnbloom died near Lay Dam when ejected from a bucket truck as he worked to restore power. It kickstarted the company’s now-renowned strong relationship with the union.

“When we lost Bobby Turnbloom, that tragedy brought us together and the dialogue was opened,” said Casey Shelton, business manager, IBEW System Council U-19, speaking in the same 2014 Powergrams article. “Charles had the foresight to understand that if we could just learn to communicate, we would see we all want the same thing, and that’s a safe and fair working environment for employees. What he’s done at Alabama Power in terms of that relationship is legendary throughout the industry.”

Another change was discontinuing use of the Saffir-Simpson scale, which measures intensity of sustained winds to predict the extent of hurricane damage. The company changed to the Hurricane Severity Index (HSI) for restoration planning after Ivan.

“HSI uses equations that incorporate the intensity of the winds and the size of the area covered by the winds,” Kirkham said. “It attempts to demonstrate two hurricanes of similar intensity may have different destructive capability due to variances in size – that a less intense but very large hurricane may in fact be more destructive than a smaller, more intense hurricane.”

Despite the gravity of dealing with Ivan’s impact, there were memorable distractions and inconveniences for employees managing the recovery.

“One of the things I didn’t expect to see was all the news stations set up in the conference room next to the Storm Center, with their cameras pointed at us,” Tavel said. “You never knew when they were filming and when they weren’t. I would get a phone call from my wife or one of my friends saying, ‘I see you on TV.’ That was nerve-wracking, knowing you could be on TV at any time.”

“I recall having to miss the Auburn-LSU football game because we were working and didn’t even have an opportunity to watch it on television,” Kirkham said. “Someone told me late Saturday afternoon that Auburn had won a thrilling 10-9 last-second victory.”

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