By Cheré Coen
Alfred Scott retired from Beauregard Electric Cooperative, Inc (BECi) two years ago, enjoying a send-off party and hoping for a work-free life.
Then Laura came storming into Louisiana, the strongest storm on record to hit Louisiana, a Category 4 hurricane making landfall in Cameron Parish with consistent hurricane-force winds as it made its way north toward Shreveport.
For Scott, the response was a no-brainer. He headed back to work, now assisting the restorative efforts at BECI’s “Tent City” where cooperatives from around the country join BECi employees to help bring its 43,000 customers in seven parishes back online.
Scott has been here before. He witnessed the devastation brought on by Hurricane Rita in September 2005, one of the most intense Atlantic storms on record.
“Hurricane Rita was wind, but it was totally different,” Scott said. “Laura was a lot more destructive, and more manpower is needed to help.”
Wesley Hinkel, another retiree returning to help with maintenance and traffic at Tent City, agreed.
“It’s totally different,” he said. “The width of the path is bigger. This one maintained its intensity.”
Kevin Reeves, also retired, oversaw the Tent City used after Hurricane Rita in 2005, helping coordinate 500 workers and 650 to 700 pieces of equipment. This experience, Reeves said, is on a higher level with more destruction to homes and downed trees that interrupted power.
“It’s total devastation,” he said.
Like the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, Reeves knew what to do once Laura passed. He met the following day with contractors to ensure a working tarmac outside the Beauregard Regional Airport. BECI employees began the coordination of incoming linemen from other cooperatives and tents were installed for the daily feeding and housing of hundreds of workers, along with bathrooms and showers.
“It’s tremendously labor-intensive,” Reeves said of building and maintaining BECI’s Tent City. “We bring these groups in from all over the United States and we try to make them as comfortable as possible.”
The day begins before dawn. After workers enjoy a hearty breakfast, trucks line up to head out over BECI’s coverage area which includes 5,750 miles of line. Police assist on the road when the parade of trucks emerge, and linemen can travel as much as an hour to their designated jobs, Reeves said.
“It’s an unending line,” Reeves explained of the trucks heading out to their jobs. “It’s like a caterpillar.”
Every worker receives a boxed lunch and plenty of ice and water as they head into the field.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for the guys,” Reeves explained.
In the evening, the trucks return at irregular hours, but BECI employees are there to assist them.
“The parking alone is a process of four hours in total,” he said, adding that the trucks must be parked with only a step between them to accommodate them all.
After making sure all workers are fed and have access to showers, there is downtime for them to relax. In the meantime, BECI ensures that the trucks are refueled and ready for action the next day.
Assisting cooperative employees arrive from nearby Gulf South states and as far away as the Midwest. The week immediately following the storm consisted of days of rain, followed by sunny situations that resulted in high temperatures and humidity levels. Heat advisories were called by the National Weather Service.
“It’s physically draining,” Reeves said of the work restoring power. “In this heat, it drains a man no matter how hearty you are.”
A crew working to install and right DeRidder street polls arrived in Louisiana from a cooler Missouri. Lineman Mason Crow admitted that the heat was unbearable but he had worked recovery efforts after Hurricane Michael in 2018, which devastated Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle.
“One of the great things about being in a coop is we are all family,” Reeves said. “These guys understand that we look after each other. They feel our challenges and they leave their families for weeks on end and pour their hearts into our area to get it functioning and running properly.”
“The most time I worked away from home was 32 days,” Crow said.
It’s a challenge taking care of an army with so many working parts, from catering and obtaining food resources to helping workers with daily issues, Reeves said. But, creating a tent city after a hurricane to bring in other cooperative employees is necessary to do the job.
“This is the only way we could restore power in a timely manner,” he said.
“I know people are frustrated because their power’s out but they don’t know what it takes to restore it,” he added. “We’re giving it everything we got.”