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Engineering experts help communities prepare for wicked weather

Engineering experts help communities prepare for wicked weather

Electrical Power poles aren't so power packed after Katrina Hurricane knocked them down with a 40+ tall tidal wave in Waveland (Ironic huh?) Mississippi getting hit with the eye of the storm

By Spencer Francis, PE

As we round out another active hurricane season, Bowman, a growing multidisciplinary professional services firm based in Reston, Va., is busy improving community infrastructure nationwide and assessing areas of future risk.

President Biden released the Build Back Better Framework, a trillion-dollar infrastructure package, and Bowman’s team of experts have long been at work on our country’s infrastructure, from utilities to land developers. Our services run the gamut, from civil, MEP and transportation engineering, to surveying, mapping, land acquisition, right of way, and other areas.

While we’re past the hurricane season, it was on everyone’s mind throughout the summer and fall. Hurricane Elsa came through the Atlantic in July and luckily didn’t do extensive damage. But all these extreme weather events demonstrate the need for continued diligence in making our infrastructure more resilient.

Bowman (Nasdaq: BWMN) offers a broad range of real estate, energy, infrastructure, and environmental management solutions to public and private clients across the country. Our engineers and planners design community infrastructure to be more resilient to increasingly severe hurricanes and other major weather events.

We also know how to quickly and safely survey the damage using the most high-tech methods available.

Much of my job and that of my team is working with energy companies and communities to harden or relocate power lines and microgrids underground. This helps communities become more resilient in extreme weather situations, such as this year’s severe storms, flooding, as well as 2020’s active hurricane season. We work closely with utility contractors and utility company engineers to move hundreds of miles of electric lines and microgrids underground every year. This, in turn, positively affects tens of thousands of properties a year. One such company is Pike Electric Corporation.

“Our clients are increasingly focused on the reliability and resilience of their electric grids. Pike’s strategic partnership with Bowman allows us to seamlessly integrate their right-of-way and survey services with our workflows. We value this approach because it combines our strengths to provide safe, efficient, and customer-focused results for our clients,” says Luis Ordaz, Vice President, Engineering, Pike Electric Corporation, a national provider of engineering and construction services to the electric utility industry.

This screen grab shows a thermal inspection of a power line.

Jason Reynolds is a Registered Professional Land Surveyor (RPLS), Bowman Principal and 30-year veteran of the survey industry based in Austin, Texas. He works with his survey team to utilize thermography video and drones to assess post-storm damage. They also look for vulnerable infrastructure. In 2017, Reynolds and his team responded to Hurricane Harvey to assist with the identification of both damaged transmission and distribution lines.

According to Reynolds, the transmission lines and majority of distribution lines post-Harvey were flown over a wide area with a manned helicopter with an onboard video camera with embedded GPS positions across a three-county area. Unmanned Aerial Systems (drones) equipped with GPS, video and thermal cameras flew over distribution lines that were in heavily vegetated areas. A utility representative subject matter expert accompanied all crews.

When a downed line or a line that was not functioning was identified, the coordinates were called into the damage response center via satellite phones to dispatch the available repair crews to the location for repair or rebuild. After a formal ‘lessons learned’ meeting about the project with internal and external stakeholders, Reynolds’ team formalized a ‘readiness condition plan’ for future storms.

This included triggers to prepare for an assessment program as the hurricane was developing, gather response assets, mobilize crews to a safe area near the anticipated impact point before the hurricane made landfall, followed by deployment to the damage assessment rally point when conditions indicated it was safe to begin flight operations. This plan was also utilized in 2019 during Hurricane Dorian.

Flight crews and 20 land-based crews accompanied the assessment team and were deployed days before the storm and were ready to assist the utility providers, but the storm was downgraded and there was minimal damage.

Bowman is at the forefront of the turnkey approach to electric distribution storm hardening as utilities race to redesign and harden their systems. With our program approach, we work directly with contractors and other engineering partners to expedite project delivery and improve our storm hardening program’s efficiency.

To handle the sheer magnitude of data and complex moving parts of these large programs, Bowman consistently works to improve processes and procedures for efficiency and accuracy. Among these improvements was the development of an online database that provides for real-time project tracking and reporting utilizing the latest cloud-based and geographic information system (GIS) technology. The Bowman team can literally have a drone out in the field while a client sees what the drone sees from wherever they are and can advise of their needs and priorities in real-time.

Bowman also has significant augmented reality capabilities so owners can now be in a “situation room” after a storm to view the live feed from the drone to assess the storm or other type of damage situation and deploy crews to the areas of the most urgent need.

Reynolds also noted that from surveying to undergrounding power lines, our strength is in our technology and how easily we collaborate to find the right solution for the client. On any given day we’re working with people in 8-10 regions solving different problems. We understand what the client needs, it’s part of our culture to know it and maximize the technology to provide the best possible solution. We have experts in a wide variety of disciplines so we can determine what needs to be put in place.

In addition to the high-tech focus at Bowman, we also have a high-touch approach among our more than 850 employees across the country.

When we’re not preparing for and surveying damage from storms, much of our work is directly with landowners during fair weather as our team works to storm-harden power lines in subdivisions and rural areas. I remember one instance on a project in Florida where we worked with an out-of-town landowner living in a very rural part of Mexico with no phone, no internet, and no mail service. We negotiated through the landowner’s cousin who then visited his relative via donkey so that we could complete the project. It’s also about building relationships and more personal transactions, which are emotional and different from traditional engineering work.

Spencer Francis, PE, EVP – REGIONAL MANAGER, is a licensed professional civil engineer with comprehensive technical and leadership experience and expertise in a wide variety of markets including economic development, transportation, stormwater, water/wastewater, energy, and land development. He oversees right-of-way and land services, civil engineering, transportation engineering, and water/wastewater engineering operations throughout the U.S. for Bowman. His ability and knowledge in leading projects from inception through construction helps develop successful projects with regard to their development challenges, the time necessary to overcome those challenges, and how creative and cost-saving solutions may be brought to bear.

This article was originally published in December 2021.