GRIFTON — Officials are hoping the town will no longer be in the dark during storm events, thanks to improvements made at a flood prone electrical substation.
The low-lying facility operated by Duke Energy on Skeeter Pond Road has been compromised for days after hurricanes including Floyd, Matthew and Florence roared through. A flood wall completed by the utility earlier this month is expected to keep out even catastrophic flooding, keeping power flowing to businesses and residents.
“Every time we had (a hurricane), like with Hurricane Matthew, the rest of Pitt County will have power and we will be without power for five to seven days,” said Mark Warren, Grifton interim town manager. “The substation floods and (repair crews) can’t go in there and repair anything until after the water recedes. It takes a while for it to dry out so they can go back in and repair things.”
The loss of power following severe storms is a detriment to the town and affects residents and businesses, Warren said.
“Tropicana Grocery Store, that’s one of the reasons they decided to close,” he said. “They couldn’t stand to be down five to seven days every time we have a storm event. People are tired of this. We have these storms more often. You go without power for five to seven days, that’s a big deal. Most of the time it’s during the hot season. It doesn’t help people and it’s a detraction from people from living here.”
Following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the town began discussions with Duke Energy to address issues at the substation.
“At first they looked at relocating the substation to higher ground,” Warren said. “We looked at all those options and decided to put a flood gate around the substation as an option. They had seen that work in other places around the country.”
The flood wall was not installed before Hurricane Florence in 2018, so Duke installed a portable dam around the substation to help protect it against floodwaters.
“It did not work because it collapsed. We were without power again,” Warren said.
Efforts were renewed after cleanup from Florence was complete, and the construction of the flood wall was completed in time for the 2020 hurricane season.
“We are working hard to make improvements to our energy infrastructure in Grifton and across the state, making it more resistant to power outages from severe storms and flooding,” Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks said. “We recognize that electricity is more than a convenience. It is an essential service, especially during a time when so many customers are living and working at home all day during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The flood wall we have constructed around the Grifton substation will help to protect essential systems, reducing the risks of extended outages due to flooding and helping crews restore power faster when outages occur,” Brooks said.
The flood wall is similar to bulkhead walls found on beaches that are used to protect homes from flooding events. The walls are placed in the ground approximately 6 to 8 feet deep and are 8 feet tall. The walls surround the substation, and a pump located inside the fence helps to pump out water. Cameras also have been installed both inside and outside the fence to help Duke monitor the amount of rainfall at the substation.
“The walls are constructed to protect the substation from water levels that exceed what the area has experienced in recent storms,” Brooks said. “In addition to the height of the wall above ground, we built the barrier twice as deep underground to provide additional protection and reinforcements.
“We have to keep gate access to the substation available during normal conditions, but when potential flooding threatens the area from an event like a hurricane, crews can install a barrier in a few hours to completely close off gate access and complete the full protective ring around the substation,” he said. “Pumps are available inside the substation to remove any water that might accumulate inside the flood wall, keeping equipment better protected from extreme conditions.”
A test run was conducted in June by Duke and it was determined that it took crews approximately two hours to install the flood gate, which is located onsite. Duke will install the flood gate two to five days before a storm event, according to Millie Chalk, district manager of government and community relations for Duke Energy NC.
“Duke has done their due diligence in trying to protect us as best as possible and as economical as possible,” Warren said. “I feel good about it. I think it will work. I’m glad we’re at the point we are right now and it was completed before hurricane season. This eliminates one aspect of not having power and that’s a big problem for the town.”
Duke is committed to its customers and is working to improve its services, Brooks said.
“We are very committed to Grifton and all of the communities we serve across eastern N.C.,” he said. “Our employees live and work in these communities and we are working hard to ensure the service we provide is reliable now and in the future.
“We are seeing storms increase in frequency and severity in the Carolinas,” Brooks said. “The grid improvements we are making will help to reduce the number of outages caused by severe weather and restore outages faster than ever before — keeping power on when our customers need it most.”