ROCKINGHAM — What’s the hardest job to have in a hurricane?
Being a first responder, a lineman for a power company or a volunteer with a relief organization are likely at the top of the list, but one place you definitely don’t want to be is on the communications staff for a power company, especially in your first week on the job.
That was the situation Seth Allen, former director of membership and communications for the Richmond County Chamber of Commerce, found himself in. He started his role as a communications specialist for Pee Dee Electric on Sept. 11, just days before Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina coast and while the company was preparing for what then was a Category 4 storm.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is really happening,’” Allen said of his first day, which started with his new boss, Vice President of Member Services Cathy Page, throwing out his planned four-week training schedule in favor of intense storm-preparation meetings with all the department heads.
“Obviously we couldn’t just give him an assignment and turn him loose,” Page said. “It was an opportunity for him to get some hands-on training.”
Allen said that the night before he had imagined walking into chaos, but he was surprised by how “calm, cool and collected” everyone was.
Allen sat in on planning meetings, which Page said exposed him to the “vast amount of coordination” it takes to respond to a hurricane, especially one of Florence’s magnitude. Page said at the peak, more than 10,000 customers lost power.
Once the storm was under way, Allen was tasked with sharing information about hazards with linemen in the field, helping communicate with members about power restoration and safety measures, and sending out “thank yous.” Page said Allen came in at 5 a.m. at least one day during the storm, and was asked to work long hours like much of the rest of the staff.
On Sunday the 17th, when the storm got its second wind, Allen joined linemen with Pee Dee on a trip to Laurel Hill to document their efforts to restore a downed power line surrounded by water, a problem Page said was the main delay in getting power turned back on. The group took a John boat to the site and Allen watched as they de-energized the line and went up in the bucket truck to tighten it.
As many staff had to do in the high-pressure situation, Allen had to take on other responsibilities, such as preparing lunches for linemen and even cleaning up late at night. Allen said he was sure he made mistakes over the course of the week but felt he had a better handle on things by Sunday and Monday, though help was close by if he had any questions.
“I’m glad I got to experience that,” Allen said of his first week, calling it a “trial by fire.” “It’s not a ‘good’ time to start, but it was a good time to start.”
Page said Allen’s start likely was a first for a Pee Dee for a communications specialist.
“We’re excited to have him,” she said. “He is very connected to the Richmond County community, and I feel like that will benefit him with the community programs we provide.”
She said Allen would continue his training in mid-October.
“I was glad he came back,” Page said. “I know it was very hard on him.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]