How the ice storm response unfolded for Hydro One

When the freezing rain started coming down, their front line was already in position

Trucks and buckets: Marcello always works ‘on the assumption that something can be improved’ (Stephan Abraitis/Hydro One)

Carmine Marcello woke up to a blank alarm clock. He looked outside his home in Vaughan, Ont. Tree limbs littered his street. Marcello, Hydro One’s CEO, knew it wouldn’t be a regular day at the office. In fact he wouldn’t see much of his Bay Street desk for days. The ice storm that befell the province had crisis written all over it, and the most densely populated part of Canada got the worst of it. So the boss, who was out of power himself for a couple of days, got on the phone. For his team, these weren’t extraordinary circumstances. “We’re in the business of managing storms,” says Marcello. “That’s what we do.”

His first calls went to Peter Gregg, Hydro One’s chief operating officer, and Laura Cooke, the company’s vice-president of corporate relations. Gregg’s role was managing the first wave of repairs, a monster job that spanned much of southwestern Ontario and spread as far east as Picton. He made sure crews were in the right spots. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as trucks and buckets,” says Marcello, speaking of the iconic image of a hydro worker hoisted into the sky by a truck anchored to an icy road. Gregg’s job delved into the nitty gritty, ensuring suppliers moved material from warehouses to the workers who needed them. Cooke’s role was working the phones with all the other players—the political leaders at Queen’s Park, the specialists at Emergency Management Ontario, and the other utility companies in the region. Together, they stickhandled the first few hours.

The company was somewhat prepared for the mass outages that struck customers. Gregg and Len McMillan, Hydro One’s vice-president of operations and maintenance, had already moved resources south from northerly communities that they correctly predicted would escape the storm’s wrath. “It’s already two days before, and they’re jockeying crews across the province,” says Marcello.

Towns typically staffed by a handful of workers ballooned. Twenty people are normally on call in Bolton, Ont., a bedroom community northwest of Toronto where more than 14,000 customers were without power on Dec. 22. By the time the lights went out, there were 250, and they went to work chopping up trees and repairing wires as soon as the weather co-operated. They were joined by a veritable army of 900 workers across the province, as well as another 400 or so who offered logistical support.

The morning after the storm, with his Vaughan neighbourhood as crippled as any other, Marcello turned his attention to the province’s capital. “I’ve never seen trees on the ground and on the lines” in Toronto, says Marcello. “In our territory, every storm has trees on the lines and on the ground. We have a huge forestry crew.” Almost immediately, even as Hydro One was mired in its own recovery effort, a team led by Bill Smeaton—the company’s point man on recent hurricane Sandy relief efforts—drew up plans to send crews to Toronto. By Dec. 27, as the bulk of Ontarians without power were huddled inside city limits, Hydro One shipped 78 of its people into town, many of them charged with clearing away fallen branches.

Things went wrong, as they do. Hydro One maintains a fleet of helicopters that assess damage from the sky. They were grounded until Dec. 23, more than a day after the storm knocked out power. Workers were hurt by damaged trees. Before he sat down with Maclean’s, Marcello was on the phone with a worker who’d escaped serious injury—“just a couple of stitches”—on the job.

Cleaning up after a storm is a messy business. Marcello started at Ontario Hydro, the company’s precursor, in 1987. He’s seen a lot of floods and storms in 25 years, each of them a challenge in their own right. “We’re always working on the assumption that there’s something that can be improved,” he says. As he pondered lessons learned after this most recent test, Marcello considered his customers’ widespread reliance on cellphones. As he walked among residents at a Toronto warming centre on Christmas Day, watching them eat mac and cheese, they all had one priority. “What was really interesting was the need to have their smartphone charged, and be connected. You think about that need for connectivity at a time when you’ve lost electricity.” Watch for a change in Hydro One’s social media policy, coming soon to a Twitter feed near you.

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