STILL IN THE DARK
As of Wednesday evening:
* 7,800 EPB customers had no power, down from 59,000 who initially lost power.
*500 contractors worked to fix more than 800 instances of damage to the grid.
* About 600 North Georgia Electric Membership Corp. were powerless.
* More than 200 line workers continued fixing the NGEMC grid into the evening.
* Four damaged cellphone towers affected more than 3,000 Comcast and an unknown number of AT&T Wireless.
Source: EPB, NGEMC
Current storm: $2.5 million
April 2011: $25.3 million
February 2011: $16.4 million
March 1993: $3.7 million
BY THE NUMBERS
500: Repairers involved in Tropical Storm Lee cleanup
1,500: Repairers working on tornado cleanup
119,000: Chattanooga-area residents who lost power in April tornadoes
59,000: Chattanooga-area residents who lost power in Tropical Storm Lee
175 miles per hour: Wind speed of April 27 tornadoes.
40-50 miles per hour: Wind speed of Tropical Storm Lee
Source: EPB, news reports
Early in the morning at EPB's operations center, a strange serenity washes over the disaster recovery workers, many of whom are running on less than five hours of sleep.
They're outnumbered by the boxes of fresh fruit, stacks of caffeinated drinks and pans of breakfast biscuits -- enough to feed an army.
But they virtually ignore the food. Breakfast was at 6 a.m., and it's after 9 a.m. now.
There's no panic, no yelling, just a quiet hum as a central monitor flashes the falling number of blacked-out customers -- 11,805 changes to 11,752 as somewhere, a power crew has just restored a line severed by a splintered pine tree.
Christie Layne, an engineer in the system planning department, surveys the outage map. She helped design part of the system, so she's assisting with the disaster recovery, which began just 15 minutes after Tropical Storm Lee's winds receded.
The operations team sometimes works 20 hours at a time during emergencies, so Layne takes her turn working while the first shift sneaks in a few hours of sleep.
"Whatever your regular job is typically stops," said Danna Bailey, vice president of corporate communications for the utility. "We've had vice presidents out here serving food to the workers."
Turning the lights back on after a storm takes thousands of contractors, linemen and retirees. EPB officials say that's just how they do business, preferring to work hard for a few days rather than to put forth only a moderate effort that drags on for weeks.
EPB chief Harold DePriest sums up his philosophy as, "you amass an army and get the power back," which included mobilizing 500 employees and contractors as of Wednesday evening.
The army's control center is crammed into an unassuming building on the EPB campus marked "construction." It's here that the repair effort ultimately succeeds or fails.
In the first hours after Lee hit, scout teams staffed by seasoned engineers took off in sturdy trucks, surveying the length and breadth of the grid.
The scouts, some of whom helped to plan the grid as it exists today, wrote more than 800 damage reports on their laptops before the storm was even over.
As their reports came in, EPB's multimillion-dollar network automatically combined them with customer calls and other data to create an outage map of the grid, which is displayed on top of a street map.
This is the blueprint for restoration.
The map shows everyone with a computer or cell phone where the problems are, where each crew is working and how many residents are affected by each outage.
Dispatchers, most of whom have multiple monitors, keep at least one eye on the live map.
A far cry from fast-talking taxi dispatchers featured in films, these high-tech dispatchers use their computer to drag and drop assignments from a master list onto a crew in the field, who then sees the job pop up on their mobile screen.
"It's organized chaos," said Wendell Boring, vice president for the electric system, as he stood in the middle of EPB's campus off McCallie Avenue. "But 10 years ago when we were on radio communications, it was a literal nightmare."
Boring knows how bad it can be. In the Blizzard of 1993, he was on a crew sent out in the middle of the storm to survey damage to the utility's lines.
"Trees were falling down in front of us and behind us," he said, smiling at the memory. "We wait to send teams out until the storm's over now."
In major storms, the hospitals and schools are the first priority for power crews.
Then workers begin to repair the largest outages affecting tens of thousands of residents, then thousands, hundreds, and so on.
It's painstaking to coordinate, requiring purchase orders for every screw and spool of wire, as well as a special group of employees just to manage the hundreds of hotel bookings for out-of-town workers.
Like a hurricane itself, the storm response team at EPB erupts into flurries of activity each morning and evening as they dispatch hundreds of contractors from all over the Southeast.
Warehouse workers load stacks of presorted supplies onto each outgoing truck, as mechanics go to work on vehicles coming in from the field.
It's down to a science at this point -- they can load a repair truck from another utility, which may have the wrong tools or no tools at all, every five minutes.
But as in a hurricane's eye, the bedlam is followed by relative tranquility until fresh teams arrive to take the place of tired crews later in the day, throwing EPB's campus back into pandemonium.
Boring describes the activity as "a circus," though the effort is far more organized than it appears.
After all, Boring's team is the same one that handled the region's worst storm in recorded history, when a series of tornadoes in April tossed trees and tore down more than 1,000 utility poles, requiring more than 1,500 workers to repair the damage and millions of dollars to repair.
Though Lee's cleanup will probably catapult it into "the top 10 list" of worst storms to hit the area, with a cost estimated at between $2 million and $2.5 million, it's actually going rather well so far, Boring said.
Though the physical repair effort slows down at night, the work doesn't stop until it's done.
Technicians in the main control room, which is dominated by a 600-square-foot mockup of EPB's electric system, flip switches throughout the wee hours, restoring electricity by rerouting power around broken lines.
They restored power to 10,000 residents Tuesday night, doing work that one day officials promise will be performed by automatic switches.
Don Nanney, who oversees this operation, sits just a few feet from a giant weather screen. He splits his attention between approaching clouds and status updates on the repairs. If there are dangerous winds in the region, he knows about it first.
"We all call him Doppler Don," jokes Boring.
Nanney, too, is working on little to no sleep. But a city depends on him to get the lines energized, to close the circuits.
Though 20-hour days are standard in times like this, it's a burden shared by officials across the pay spectrum, officials say.
Perhaps the toughest job of all belongs to the line crews who were called back home from Baltimore, where they were helping with the weeklong cleanup of Hurricane Irene.
Five crews traveled back to Chattanooga on Tuesday night, and were back at work Wednesday morning, Bailey said.
"We're a public utility, this is our job," she added. "We can't stop events like this from happening, but we can make the outages shorter.
Power should be restored to all remaining customers by Friday.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...