By: Tom Lambert

About 72 hours in advance of a forecasted windstorm that ripped through Michigan in mid-December, a plan was being strategically developed by a team of Consumers Energy storm responders of how to handle the expected outages in the coming days.

Then it was a matter of preparing, waiting, anticipating, and then executing the comprehensive plan. All while keeping in mind, as in any bout with Mother Nature, that adjustments must be made at a moment’s notice.

“Safety is our top priority and we must remain agile when it comes to these unpredictable storms,” said Billie Irvine, Low Voltage Distribution East Manager for the windstorm that swept across Michigan recently with gusts of 65 to 75 miles per hour. “Our crews were valiant in overcoming the many challenges they faced. All of our customers are important to us. We are committed to restoration efforts right up until the very last customer has their power restored.”

An initial challenge on Thursday night was use of the bucket trucks to fix the 300 snapped poles left in the storm’s wake. For their safety, workers can only go up in the bucket when winds are below a sustained 40 mph. Another was safely navigating around the state to each community without power. A wintry mix on Friday night caused slower than normal travel times.

“As with any storm that produces hazards, we are committed to ensuring our crews and the public are kept safe as we repair and restore in the most efficient manner possible. We have a world class team and they consistently and tirelessly show up for our customers when they need us,” Irvine said.

To cut down on response times, crews were preparing at headquarters around the state as well as Meijer parking lots in Coldwater and Cadillac.

“We set up in areas where we expected the most damage and then we adjusted accordingly,” said Doug Hiatt, Low Voltage Distribution West Manager for the storm. “There were some long days and nights for our crews, but as they have many times before, they rose to the occasion for our customers.”

As the storm intensified on Wednesday night into Thursday afternoon, bringing down 2,400 lines and knocking out power to more than 198,000 customers, the Consumers Energy team reached out for additional help to the more than 200 crews already on the job. An additional 250 crews from Canada, Ohio and Indiana provided some much-needed support to help restore power.

“We had about 450 crews come together in our state’s time of need,” Hiatt said. “The additional crews were tremendous in helping us get people’s power back on safely and efficiently.”

Crews worked in 16-hour shifts round the clock from Thursday through Sunday to restore power. This comes on the heels of Consumers Energy crews working overtime on reliability projects the last eight weeks.

“They have been working hard to improve the reliability for our customers and provide them with exceptional customer service,” he said. “After this latest storm, I asked them to catch their breath, restock your trucks, whatever you need to do to get re-energized.”

Rey Fontanez Jr. has been involved in the reliability projects and was one of the hundreds of crew members called in Thursday morning to report for duty for the latest storm.

Fontanez, a lineworker  in-charge, who has been with the company for 30 years,  said the storm damage was pretty devastating compared to the hundreds he has encountered in his career.

“I’ve been all over – Florida, New York and Kentucky,” said Fontanez, who works out of West Kent. “This one was up there. There were some short days and long nights for us. But we managed to restore the power and do it safely.”

His main focus was replacing broken poles in the Grand Rapids area. He steadily worked in between wind gusts.

“The wind was really brutal in spurts,” he said. “You could work for a half hour, then had to come back down for a bit when it was unsafe to be up in the bucket truck.”

Fontanez said he is thankful for his role in restoring power in his community.

“I take great pride in getting the lights back on for my family, friends and neighbors, even in the toughest of circumstances,” he said. “No matter if it’s in wind, rain, sleet or snow —  we are always ready to go. And I promise you that we will be ready for the next one.”