NETL’s Rob Gross is at work in Baton Rouge helping families in temporary FEMA trailers get power for their new temporary homes. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture
The weather people called it a “mesoscale convective system.” It unleashed between 2 and 3 inches of rain an hour on the Baton Rouge, LA, area August 11, causing incredible flooding, the evacuation of nearly 30,000 people, and massive misery for the entire region. It was also the reason that NETL’s Rob Gross’s telephone rang one night 3 weeks later.
Gross works at NETL with a team of experts on issues related to improving the nation’s power grid, increasing semiconductor efficiency, updating technologies for electric transformers, and dozens of other critical power topics. But, when tragedies strike, Gross and his colleagues quickly become emergency responders with a particular set of skills—they become a critical part of response efforts related to electric power restoration.
As an expert with NETL’s Energy Delivery and Security Team, Gross was dispatched almost 1,150 miles south from his Morgantown work site to help end the desperation of thousands of suffering flood victims who were struggling to return their lives to normal.
An estimated 146,000 homes were damaged in the August flooding, and the event has been characterized as the worst U.S. natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Thousands of people were forced into shelters and the struggle is on to relocate them to temporary homes until rebuilding can occur.
Working in tandem with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Gross is assigned to a region that includes Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arkansas, so when the Louisiana flooding occurred, his number came up, and when FEMA transitioned from “disaster response” to “disaster recovery,” he found himself on an airplane headed south.
His job in Baton Rouge is to help families who are forced to relocate to FEMA trailers because their homes were caught in the devastation. His job is to help facilitate the power hook-ups that are needed for their temporary homes as efficiently and quickly as possible.
“I’m a kind of liaison between FEMA and the utility companies that hook up the power to the trailers,” Gross said from his makeshift office in a converted Baton Rouge convention center building that saw its first action as a Hurricane Katrina response center.
Rob Gross temporarily swapped his Morgantown NETL Office for this makeshift work space in an old Baton Rouge convention center.
The current mission wasn’t his first deployment to the same region.
”I cut my teeth on Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Those events affected the entire Gulf coast from Mississippi to Texas. This one is more localized but the devastation has been incredible.”
Gross said that FEMA trailers with two or three bedrooms are available for people who have lost their homes. If their home has been flooded but the land is inhabitable and the
homeowner wants to continue living on the property, FEMA can place one of the mobile homes on the property. Separate utility hook-ups from the original connections are required. That’s where Gross comes in. He helps coordinate communication between FEMA and the two power companies that service the affected area, Entergy and Dixie Electric Members Cooperative.
Baton Rouge flood victims move in to FEMA temporary housing with Rob Gross’s help.
A second housing option for flood victims is to relocate to mobile home parks controlled by FEMA—another leftover from the horrors of Katrina. Although the actual trailers used in Katrina recovery are long gone, pads for trailers remain in designated areas of the Baton Rouge area. New trailers with a new mission are being installed and Gross helps families get power to them too.
“My role is primarily to serve as the single source point of contact between FEMA and the affected utilities,” he said. “We are working 12 hour days 7 days a week.
FEMA trailer placed on a property where The house was too damaged to use.
It’s not glamorous work at all. The goal is to be able to successfully make 50 connections per day. Right now, we are not anywhere near that. In Louisiana, there is also a state public service commission in the process. I have to provide detailed updates to them and the utilities on what needs to be done, and that is a lot. There are multiple steps from inspections and trailer placement to paperwork and calls requesting service.”
Gross said the magnitude of the destruction is reflected in the sheer size of the debris field located near his makeshift office.
“The debris field is the size of a golf course and is about 40 feet high everywhere,” he said. “There are workers over there sorting through it every day to determine what can go in a typical landfill and what might be considered hazardous and can’t go to a landfill.”
Gross said he has to stay about an hour away from Baton Rouge and travel an hour to get to his work site because closer lodgings were either damaged or are being occupied by families that simply have nowhere else to go.
He said one of the first things he did when he arrived was take a driving “windshield tour” to assess the devastation. He believes his work will be going on for some time.
“This is going to be a long-term recovery,” he said. “Our target is the middle of December to get these trailers and families placed. Obviously, there is a lot to be done.”
Gross’s work on this emergency, along with the services of other members of the NETL Energy Delivery and Security Team including Bob Reed, Jay Hanna, James Briones, Ryan Watson, Keith Dodrill, Don Ferguson, Clark Robinson, Joe Dygert and Walter Yamben, is just one more way the laboratory is making a difference in the effort to increase the energy security of the United States.