Imagine recovering from Hurricane Irma’s wrath while also feeding and housing hundreds of hungry linemen from Seminole Electric Cooperative, Inc. (SECO) and Duke Energy.
Mike Standifer, director of Florida United Methodist Camps and Retreats, doesn’t have to imagine. He and his weary staff at the Life Enrichment Center and Warren Willis Camp in Fruitland Park have done just that in the 10 days since the storm hit.
|While there was flooding and tree damage, the Warren Willis Camp was able to house up to 800 linemen at one point after the storm hit Florida. Some staff worked 14- to 16-hour days to accommodate power crews arriving day and night.|
“It’s been pretty stressful,” he said, adding that he was first contacted by the power companies the Thursday before Irma made landfall. “That’s when we realized it could be pretty big,” he said. “SECO called at noon, and Duke Energy called at 12:30 p.m., and from that point, it’s been literally nonstop.”
Many arrived before the storm hit, and at one point after the storm, the LEC-Warren Willis facility was housing as many as 750 to 800 linemen. Although the power companies attempted to provide Standifer with accurate estimates of crew sizes, the totals were often well off the mark, sending the staff scrambling to provide enough food and supplies. The linemen also arrived late at night or in the wee hours of the morning after driving for hours from distant states.
“Everyone pitched in,” Standifer said, noting that some employees were putting in 14- to16-hour days. “They did grounds. They did food service. They did logistics,” he said. “Our staff was constantly flexing and changing.”
But even amid the chaos, he’s confident the camp served an important purpose.
“It has been a great opportunity for us to be part of the solution,” he said. “It was a great way for us to be in ministry to house people who were then going out to help people.”
A few days after the storm, the camp got another housing request from Duke Energy, but explained that one cabin wouldn’t be available because of a nearby damaged and leaning tree.
“They piped up and said, ‘We’ve got tree guys!’” said Billy Thompson, operations manager at LEC-Warren Willis. “They sent a whole crew that really gave a lot of their time and energy.”
The workers cut down trees on both sides of the road and shaved four to six months off the cleanup efforts at LEC-Warren Willis.
“These were guys that came all the way from North Carolina, and they didn’t want to just sit here,” Thompson said. “They really wanted to be helping,” he said. “It was such a great group of guys.”
While the LEC is back to housing its regular guests, the Warren-Willis side of the facility might see more lineman in the next few weeks, Standifer said.
Overall, the FLUMC camps and retreats fared well during Hurricane Irma. Centenary Camp in Quincy saw minimal damage, and only one of the four sites, Riverside Camp and Retreat, on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in LaBelle, remains without power. Riverside is currently operating its vital systems via generator and will need volunteers to help with cleanup, Standifer said.
Standifer and Thompson stated that they are now evaluating the post-storm housing and all that it entailed to provide better services in the future.
“I do think we would be open to doing it again,” Standifer said. “We are tweaking some things, and we have learned a great deal.”
Both men say they are keeping an eye on the weather reports as Hurricane Maria follows Irma’s path through the Caribbean.
“If it comes, okay, Lord, just brace us, and we’ll get through it!” Standifer said.
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola.