After a deadly tornado ripped through Western Kentucky just before the December 2021 holiday season, survivors described the destruction as beyond the scope of imagination. Homes and businesses leveled, vehicles mangled, transmission and distribution lines downed.
Once the threat had passed, line personnel from West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative rushed into service.
“It was the first time in my career that I heard the words ‘tornado emergency,’” said David Smart, the president and CEO of West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative. “The level of destruction was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, a path 38 miles long and a mile wide in our service territory.”
An emergency response
The cooperative’s team geared up to serve their neighbors in need—more than 30,000 customers without power mostly in Graves and Marshall Counties. The electricity provider had the advantage of remotely-managed, resilient infrastructure to aid in outage restoration. Five years earlier, West Kentucky had deployed the Sensus FlexNet® communication network, a reliable, point-to-multipoint system that enables near real-time meter data monitoring.
[The network] allowed us to pinpoint outages quicker and we restored power to all of our members in almost a week’s time. – David Smart, President and CEO, West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative
Experts from Xylem traveled to the region to confirm the FlexNet system had survived the storm. They found that all network gear withstood the catastrophe and showed which properties still had power and which did not.
“The network helped us determine if there was still a meter without power in the field, as opposed to us sending out a truck,” said Smart. “It allowed us to pinpoint outages quicker and we restored power to all our co-op members in almost a week’s time.” It also helped identify the 218 homes destroyed beyond repair in the co-op’s service area.
The resilient infrastructure enabled a targeted restoration effort. Mutual aid crews from other Kentucky cooperatives and Tupelo, Mississippi, along with contractors across the Bluegrass State, worked diligently to replace more than 250 transformers and stand up nearly 500 poles to help resolve service interruptions.
Lessons learned: proximity and safety net
Smart shares an important lesson involving the proximity of operations. The co-op’s operations center in Graves County sustained partial roof damage. Its main office was structurally fine but lost communications. By contrast, the tornado leveled a candle factory across the street from the cooperative’s Mayfield operations center, killing nine people.
“Our main office and our operations center are only two miles apart,” said Smart. “We were dangerously close to losing all of the trucks and equipment that make the emergency recovery efforts possible.”
Due to the near loss of all the cooperative’s local data systems, Smart is now considering a second data network center far from Mayfield. Thanks to Xylem technology, he felt reassured that should he ever need it, their smart meter data is always backed-up at a secure location. This hosted solution creates data redundancy—an insurance policy for the data that empowers the recovery of resilient communities.
“This time we were able to access our own data, but it’s nice to know Xylem can provide a safety net,” said Smart. “You can never have enough redundancy when it comes to resilient operations.”
In times of crisis, the kindness of people stands out. As first responders and disaster relief agencies provided immediate assistance to those in need, Xylem set up a charitable campaign, matching donations made by employees and external partners, which raised a total of $28,000.
“The degree of loss has been difficult for the community, but the way people have stepped up since then has been tremendously encouraging,” said Georgann Lookofsky, communication and media relations coordinator for the Cooperative.
While the mountains of debris will take months to remove and the damaged property may take years to rebuild, West Kentucky Rural Electric is appreciative of the many field crews and volunteers who immediately came to their aid.
“This is the epitome of what America is all about,” said Smart. “As part of the co-op family, we’re committed to service and we’ll return the favor when another electricity provider needs mutual aid. We are truly stronger together.”
Improve outage response capabilities across large Midwest service territory
Deploy a resilient network to enable timely remote system management
Create a safety net for data with a hosted solution