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Repair to damaged electric cables at Bonner Bridge moves forward

Power outage Ocracoke NC; Tideland EMC photo of Bonner Bridge construction

An aerial view of the area at the foot of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge where damage to the electrical cables occurred. Photo by: Jim Chrisman for Tideland EMC

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Cape Hatteras Electric Member Cooperative (CHEC) continues to work around the clock to repair the electric transmission cables damaged Thursday (July 27) when the contractor rebuilding the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge sunk a steel casing into two of three underground electric cables causing a blackout on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.

Thousands of residents and businesses in Hatteras and Ocracoke lost power and tourists were evacuated after the power was cut on July 27 during construction work at new Bonner Bridge.  While repairs are being made to the damaged electric cables, both islands are being powered by portable generators that cannot handle full visitor capacity.

The Raleigh News&Observer reported Tuesday that the workers were not using the casing to drive new pilings at the time as previously reported, but were instead moving the casing to a place where it could be stored temporarily, according to Tim Hass, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Hass said that workers were doing cleanup work at the south end of the bridge. 

People from NCDOT were on hand to supervise work at the bridge, as they do on all large projects, Hass told the News&Observer, but they were at the north end of the bridge, where construction was taking place at the time of the accident. Workers used a crane to put the sleeve into the ground, the way someone might stick a shovel in the dirt when it’s not needed.

Hyde County Public Information Officer Donnie Shumate said in an interview on Tuesday that the electric companies are no longer pursuing  a third option of finding additional portable generators. “It could be fixed faster than finding a bunch of generators,” he said. Moreover, the engineering involved in syncing several generators is not a simple thing to do. 

“If one generator goes down, the whole circuit could blow,” he said. “The more generators you have on a circuit the more unstable they become. It’s not reliable energy.” The companies have everything they need to do the repairs both above and below ground, he added.

“This company doing the overhead project is absolutely amazing,” he said. Heidi Smith, Tideland EMC spokesperson, said Tuesday that Lee Electrical Construction doing the overhead project, is the same company that after Hurricane Arthur hit the island July 4, 2015, replaced 45 downed electric poles along N.C. 12 in 48 hours. New River Construction is working on repairing the submerged cables and she likened the technical skill required to make these repairs to heart surgery.

“The viewing public (on Facebook) is having a contest to see which company will finish its work first,” she said.

These damaged cables are under the oversight of CHEC, which released the following update Tuesday night:

Overhead Solution: After completing installation of the poles required for overhead transmission lines, crews worked quickly to anchor the poles, place guy wires and build the right structures to accommodate other system components. Crews will begin installing the three-phase line tonight. Concurrently, the specialist team will begin prep work for the highly technical and detailed process of connecting the new overhead cables in two places–to the existing underground lines just before the site of the damage and to the existing overhead lines that run the length of Hatteras Island.

Underground Solution: Conditions at the trench continue to present significant challenges. The PCL Construction excavation team has worked hard to dewater the trench via a hydro-vacuum truck, and a well and pump system. However, because of the depth below the water table and the location adjacent to the sound, water continues to seep in. Crews continue their work to make trench conditions safe for the splicing specialists.

Timeframe: Restoring reliable transmission service in the safest, fastest way possible is our priority. CHEC estimates a four-to-six day time frame from now for complete transmission restoration, an improvement from the six-to-ten days it previously reported.  This includes the time required for testing after all construction is complete and before transmission service can begin.

CHEC is also working with Dare County officials to coordinate the safe return of visitors as soon as possible and Tideland, EMC is doing the same with Hyde County officials.