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Gulf Power Shifts Gears On Hurricane Drill

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

It began as the annual hurricane drill by Gulf Power Company Wednesday morning. But participants were thrown a curveball that a major league pitcher would have been proud of.

The original scenario: Hurricane Irma-2, a Category-3 storm, is bearing down on the Gulf Coast.

“When we got into the briefing room, we found out that the hurricane had made a [sic] easterly turn and was going out into the Atlantic,” said Gulf Power spokesman Jeff Rogers. “However, at four a.m. this morning, as part of the drill, we had a cyberattack. And so everyone had to shift gears.”

The rest of the scenario: the bad guys were demanding $5 million in ransom; at least two substations have been physically attacked, and Internet access was cut off.

“And so factoring that in there, you’re involving now possibly Homeland Security, the FBI, and a lot of coordinated agencies to make sure everyone’s in the loop and you’re moving ahead in the right way.”

If there’s any one slight advantage, Rogers says many of the processes used when a hurricane threatens, can be used in the event of a cyberattack.

“There are a lot of unknowns at first; so you really are working hard to determine where the issues are,” Rogers said. “Folks are going out into the field, to determine the extent of the damage on the substations, or any of the rest of our systems. We’re reverting as part of the drill into a manual mode.”

After every such drill, participants go back and re-hash everything and seek lessons learned.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
One of the "War Rooms" set up by Gulf Power for Wednesday's hurricane-turned-cyberattack exercise.

“What did we learn? And really put together some information going forward, so we have a good notebook of information about cybersecurity and attacks,” said Rogers. “And what we’ll do is think through that and think through it even more moving forward.”

Gulf Power is planning a mini-hurricane drill at some point, to get up to speed on the upcoming season. When it comes to preparing for a storm, it’s all hands on deck for the utility’s 13 hundred employees. Spokeswoman Kimberly Blair says speed is of the essence.

“We definitely want them to think about, and make their plans now,” Blair said. “Whether it’s about how they’re going to evacuate or shelter in place. But also think about their house and is it prepared.”

Many customers whose electricity goes off during a storm are not aware of the set restoration procedure that Gulf Power crews have. To that end, Gulf Power has produced a short video.

“Local municipalities must clear any blocked roadways,” said the voiceover on the video. “Before any repairs can begin, the crew has to wait for the ‘all clear’ from our control center; confirming that the downed line has been de-energized and the site is safe for work.”

If you don’t see a Gulf Power crew in your neighborhood just after the juice goes off, there’s a good reason for that. During a widespread outage, there are certain places that must be restored first, according to the video.

“Power plants, substations, hospitals, nursing homes, police and fire stations, as well as water and sewage treatment facilities. After that, our crews will focus on places where we can get the most customers back on, in the shortest period of time.”

Because of the various coastal locations served by Gulf Power, the utility’s Kimberly Blair says they have special challenges in their work to get the electricity flowing again.

“On the beach, if there’s been a big flooding event, we have underground utilities there; they may be buried under mounds and mounds of sand,” said Blair. “So, some of it is access – can we get to it?”

One way to help prepare for hurricanes is to visit Gulf Power’s Storm Center website, www.MyGulfPower.com. There – and on the utility’s app – is information on how to prepare for hurricane season, along with storm survival tips and outage information.

“What’s going on, where it is, is there a crew en route or a crew on scene?” said Gulf Power’s Kimberly Blair. “It also gives a [sic] estimated restoration time.”

And if a storm enters the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Power will activate their storm plan, complete with a hurricane prep page front and center on the utility’s website.                       

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.