Kauai residents posted ldquoMahalordquo signs to show appreciation to linemen for their work on the island Photo by Donna Rader

Tales from the Storm

Aug. 25, 2015
Linemen may be the first responders when severe weather hits, but memories of the destruction last forever.

Every veteran lineman has worked a storm that forever changes his outlook on the line trade and on life. These natural disasters burn in their memories because of the devastation and destruction, never-ending work days, challenging work conditions and response from the community when the first lightbulb shines brightly after a weeklong power outage.

Like other linemen, James Harvey of Southern California Edison (SCE) has worked his fair share of severe storms, seen poles down and witnessed unthinkable destruction. However, what set the Kauai hurricane apart was the response from the community to the field crews.

“We worked like dogs from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week for two months straight, but it didn’t seem like it,” Harvey said. “There were 53,000 people on that island who thought the world of us to give up our lives back home and help them get their electricity back on. That is what I will never forget; we were like family. Anywhere we went on that island, they could not have been more welcome and thankful. I can’t even imagine getting that kind of reaction after any of the storms around here.”

While many severe weather events have had a lasting impact on those in the line trade — from earthquakes in California to ice storms in the Midwest — linemen often have one storm that stands out in their memory above all others.

Hurricane Katrina: Like a War Zone

Hurricane Katrina may have hit the Gulf Coast 10 years ago, but Alex Parnell, a lineman with Mississippi Power, remembers it like it was yesterday.

“At that time, one of my coworkers, who was a Desert Storm veteran, explained to me that this was the closest I would ever get to war without someone shooting at me,” he said. “That’s basically how the conditions were.”

He recalled seeing small children, similar in age to his at the time, standing in line to get a bag of ice — only to be turned away because the ice ran out before they could get it. In another spot where he was working, he and the other linemen would pass by the same man every day and, behind him, his house was a big mass of rubble.

“Every morning and evening as we passed him, he would be just sitting in a chair smoking a cigarette because that was all he had. This was the extent of the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast,” he said.

Parnell had family members he could not get in touch with at the time. “I didn’t know whether or not my house was OK or not OK, but I worked straight through for almost three weeks.”

Jason Jones, a line crew foreman for SCE, also worked this storm, back when was with M.J. Electric. He remembered that many families picked up and left everything behind when the storm was about to hit the coast.

“In the first couple weeks, we were out on the streets by ourselves,” he said. “It was like a ghost town. We tried to feed the stray dogs and take care of everything.”

As the families returned to their homes, they often discovered they had lost everything, yet they still tried to take care of the line crews.

“What was amazing about that storm was how nice and open the people were,” he said. “They opened up their homes, cooked meals for us and treated us like their own family. It made us want to go back out there and work harder for them to get their power back on as fast as possible.”

Hurricane Iniki: Part of the Family

Another storm that had a lasting impact on linemen was Hurricane Iniki, one of the most forceful storms ever to hit the Hawaiian Islands. Back in 1992, a team of 34 transmission linemen, mechanics and supervisors boarded a jet headed to the island of Kauai.

“The hurricane had devastated the island, and they told us to prepare to live in rough conditions for at least 90 days,” said Jeff Billingsley, who worked as a line crew foreman during the storm restoration effort but now serves as director of transmission for SCE. “I remember being able to sit in the jump seat next to the pilot. And when we came into view of the island, it looked as if a fire had come through and the island had burned, but nothing was scorched. There were no leaves on any of the vegetation.”

Harvey, who worked as a lineman on Billingsley’s crew, said everything was gone — with very few poles or structures even left standing. Only a few poles were leaning and able to be straightened back up.

Kauai residents posted “Mahalo” signs to show appreciation to linemen for their work on the island. Photo by Donna Rader.

“If I were an insurance agent, I would call it a 100% loss,” said Harvey, who now serves as the transmission grid manager for SCE. “While some parts of the distribution system were OK, the transmission system, which is what we came to work on, was completely wiped out. It reminded me of being on the set of a war movie with a sky full of helicopters, military vehicles on the ground and devastation everywhere. After I saw that, I knew it would be a long trip.”

After about 30 days, SCE sent some crews home, but Billingsley and Harvey decided to stay on the island to wrap up the restoration work. They ended up working on the island from September 13 through December 7. During the initial part of the restoration effort, the linemen stayed in a hotel with no power and no hot water.

“The carpets were wet in the hotels, there were no drapes on the windows, and we took baths that were so cold, it was incredible,” Harvey said.

Still, they worked tirelessly on repairing the overhead infrastructure following the hurricane. The main subtransmission line ran about 42.6 miles from one end of the island to the other and required extensive repair. As such, SCE worked alongside Maui Electric, Pacific Gas and Electric, Citizen Power, Henkels & McCoy and American Line Builders to restore power.

In the beginning, while the linemen were waiting for new poles to be ferried in, they focused on setting up a laydown yard near Lihue. Next, they scavenged for anything that could be reused like bolts, nuts, insulators and clamps so they could build up their material stock.

“Because their construction standards were very similar to what we used, it was a no-brainer on what was needed,” Billingsley said. “They used a lot of stand-off post insulators, and their conductor spacing was very similar to what we do here.”

After picking up some of the 66-kV line on the island, they began to work their way eastward into a big circle. In addition, they discovered a working generator, installed new wire and made a connection to begin restoring power to part of the local community.

While they were working on the island, the SCE crews had a daily visitor: Sam Kamae, a 15-year-old boy with special needs. Each day, he came out to the site to watch the crews work. While he kept his distance, the linemen quickly became familiar with him and set up a special chair for him on the job site.

“After a while, we became attached to him,” Harvey said. “We gave him a hard hat and gloves, and, as the days went by, he became part of our crew. After work, we would take him home, and in the mornings, we would swing by and pick him up on the way to the job site.”

One day, as the linemen were working on the side of the highway, a car pulled up. Two men wearing suits exited the car and approached the linemen, who thought they were in trouble.

“It turned out to be Sam’s principal and the school superintendent,” Harvey said. “They told us that school had been open for several weeks, and Sam hadn’t showed up. Due to his situation, however, they said they and his mom felt like it was better for him socially to hang out with us than be at school.”

Sam then kept coming with the linemen to the job site, attended barbecues with the field crews and became endeared to everyone on the island. After the crews returned home, they passed the hard hat to collect money to send his mom — a single mother with five kids — and Sam to the mainland for the first time.

“We took them to Disneyland and Universal Studios, and we took the money left over and gave it to the mom to take home,” Harvey said. “We have remained in touch and stayed close to his family ever since.”

Along with Sam, Harvey and Billingsley became close with many others on the island.

Before the power was restored, they lived on Spam and rice, but, once the electricity came back on, they were able to enjoy local fare like mahi-mahi with a cold beer. Also, a local family invited them over for supper every Monday night.

“If we didn’t show up for dinner, they would call the hotel and make sure we were OK,” Billingsley said. “We went there every Monday and didn’t skip a beat. The family had a diesel generator and a big grill in the backyard, and we would watch Monday Night Football, and friends and family would come by and put whatever they had on the grill and everyone ate it.”

Since the locals did not eat pizza, every so often, the linemen would get a takeout pizza and put it out on the table for everyone to enjoy. At the same time, Harvey and Billingsley also had the opportunity to try some “weird food.”

“I think they were having a good time with us by making us eat things they wouldn’t normally eat,” Billingsley said. “For example, one time, they got out a bag of shellfish, put Tabasco on them, and ate them right out of the shell. I noticed that the bag kept falling over and the shellfish kept spilling out of it, so I kept putting them back in there. Then it happened again, and I took a closer look and saw the shells crawling away. They were alive!”

While they did taste some unusual cuisine on the island, they also ate like kings, Harvey said. For example, the crews took off a half day on Thanksgiving after working 16-hour days. They remember sitting in the yard, listening to the ukulele and eating freshly caught seafood.

“Someone would bring a fish and throw it on the grill, and they would eat it from lips to the tail — except for the eyeballs, which they had us eat,” Harvey said. “At the other house, we ate 100 little fish that were caught by a boy and his dad who had thrown a net in the water. We had never seen anything like that before.”

Harvey said the families truly accepted and adopted the linemen who were on the island restoring power. “When we left, they were crying. The elder even blew a horn to ward off spirits. It was an emotional deal for all of us. It was also the biggest adventure I have ever had in my life.”

Hurricane Sandy: Widespread Destruction

As a lineman based in Arizona, Robert Campbell never thought he would have an opportunity to work in New York, but Hurricane Sandy, or Superstorm Sandy, drew linemen from across North America — including crews from Salt River Project (SRP).

When he was called up to respond, Campbell said he already had everything he needed in his work truck. He packed a small bag and boarded a C5 transport jet on the national guard base. While the bucket truck, boom truck and a one-ton pickup truck were strapped down inside the transport jet, Campbell and the five four-person line crews along with a few supervisors sat in an area above the cargo hold. “The airplane ride there was the biggest thrill to me,” said Campbell, who has been with SRP for the last 17 years.

When he arrived in New York, he met the coordinators for the Long Island Power Authority in a mall parking lot, where the utility was staging the equipment. The utility sent the crews out to different areas to repair infrastructure, restore power and set new poles.

Sandy caused widespread destruction to homes right before Halloween in Rockaway, a beachside neighborhood of New York City.

“We were there about two weeks, and there were hundreds of poles down,” he said. “It was a challenge not knowing the area or how to get to the job site. Also, their construction standards were different than ours. For example, they have self-protected transformers and a lot of equipment that is bigger than what we are used to.”

Campbell remembers seeing sheer destruction when he arrived on the first job site. Forceful winds snapped wood poles in half and blew tree branches on top of power lines. The coastal side also was the most severely affected by the hurricane as a result of flooding and saltwater contamination at the substations.

“Our storms here in Arizona are much more concentrated in one small area with only a 5-sq-mile area that gets hit hard,” he said. “A bunch of poles may be broken in half during monsoons and microbursts, which have concentrated high winds and a lot of rain. After this hurricane, however, the size of the damaged area was impressive.”

The crews worked 16 hours a day with eight hours between shifts. While on the job, Campbell said the linemen all had to be aware of the risks involved. They also used high-voltage testers and grounds to ensure everything was de-energized. And because of the significant amount of flooding with the storm, they had to check the condition of equipment carefully before energizing it. For example, when he and his crew were asked to energize an underground transformer, they discovered, while the feed was on higher ground, the transformer was under water.

“When you work on a big job like that, and a lot of crews are doing different things, you have to stay focused, keep your PPE on, when necessary, and follow your training and guidelines,” Campbell said. “You must also not take anything for granted.”

When he goes out on a storm, he said his wife and two sons worry about him, but, by testing, grounding and doing everything he is supposed to do, he always comes home safely to his family. “Things are going to happen, but if you take your precautions, you are usually going to be safe.”

For the most part, he said the displaced customers in New York were very grateful the linemen were restoring power, but sometimes they grew frustrated and impatient after going a week without electricity.

“There were linemen working around the clock, but we didn’t always know when we might be able to restore power to certain customers,” he said. “For example, we would be restoring power to residents on one street, and then their neighbors on the next street over would ask when their electricity would be back on.”

Even though the residents did not have much — many of their homes were flooded and their power was out — they would bring pizza and coffee to the crews to show them how grateful they were for helping to restore power.

Many utilities provided mutual assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, including the Salt River Project, which sent crews from Arizona to New York to help.

Inland Hurricane: Infrastructure Devastation

While hurricanes often hit coastal cities, Jay Clarida will never forget when an inland hurricane soaked Marion, Illinois, U.S. Six years ago, the storm came up through New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., hit land and was expected to dissipate. Instead, it picked up moisture and wreaked havoc in the Ameren Illinois service territory.

“It was the very worst storm I’ve ever worked,” he said. “There was extreme damage and you couldn’t get around. In the city, they cleared the debris, but they stacked it right where we needed to be working.”

At the height of the storm, the winds were 100 mph, and three cities — Marion, Carbondale and Makanda — had a combined total of 70,000 customers out of power. As a lineman of 42 years, Clarida said he has worked on countless storms in his service territory. However, the inland hurricane had extremely high winds and caused a significant amount of destruction. He recalled sitting in his office at about noon on May 8, 2009, when he started seeing high winds start to pick up outside his window.

“Stuff was blowing across the parking lot from the west to the east, and I heard a horrible noise rolling across the roof,” he said. “When I looked outside, I could see the air conditioning unit and roofing materials flying through the air. Then, it got so dark that I was not able to see anything. It was just unreal.”

When the storm hit, the first thing he did was call his family to make sure they were safe. Next, he called one of his linemen and asked him to drive to a substation on the east side of town. As the lineman was driving down the road, a box truck blew over on its side right in front of him.

“He was right in the middle of it,” Clarida said. “I didn’t realize how bad it was at that point.”

After the weather calmed down, he checked in with all the field crews to ensure everyone was safe. He then started sending the local line crews to every substation in Marion, Illinois. To protect them, he instructed them to open up everything for safety but not energize anything lying on the ground. The only way to get some circuits back on-line was to go in and open everything, and then repair anything they saw on the circuit.

“When you heat a circuit back up, it was scary to me,” Clarida said. “Many men came in here to work, and as many as we had heating stuff up, we wanted to make sure that everyone was in the clear and didn’t cross over from one circuit to another. I was very worried and had a fear that someone would get hurt on my watch, but fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

While Ameren Illinois did not lose any steel poles, more than 500 wood poles were completely destroyed in one small geographical area.

“It hit on the west side of Carbondale and Marion, and only two out of 19 distribution substations were still energized, with only two circuits still on,” Clarida said. “Fortunately, on the substation, there was not any major damage. The trees did more damage than anything. The wind blew the trees right into the power lines, and the weight of the trees snapped everything.”

A storm with winds in excess of 100 mph ripped through southern Illinois in May 2009. The storm’s devastation was evident on Wall Street in Carbondale, where part of a metal roof blocked one lane of traffic.

Just trying to access the work site was a challenge for the field crews. For example, because of flooding and debris, Ameren Illinois arranged to have bulldozers pull the line trucks to where the linemen would be working. The field crews also used 11 backyard machines to dig holes, set poles and fit through narrow gates in backyards.

“We have a lot of rear-lot construction and poles right by the cross country line, and you can’t get the big trucks into a location like that without tearing up everything,” Clarida said. “We also couldn’t get the trucks in the backyards with all the houses, fences and trees. This machine is made to go into tight spots and repair poles.”

In one location in southeast Marion, the linemen had to reroute a line.

“Stuff was ripped to smithereens, and we couldn’t get the line to where it was supposed to be because of the water and debris, so we put an angle in it,” Clarida said.

To repair damage and restore power, the linemen worked 17-hour to 18-hour days, from sunrise until sundown. Ameren Illinois crews worked alongside contract crews as well as linemen from Missouri and Michigan.

To take care of these out-of-town linemen while they were away from home, Ameren set up a tent village in a Walmart parking lot with 18-wheelers equipped with bunk beds, trailers with washers and driers, and a large tent that served as a mess hall where linemen could eat their meals. In addition, Ameren Illinois brought in six material trailers into the parking lot and staged everything the field crews needed to restore power, from poles to crossarms.

Ameren Illinois has a robust storm logistics plan. When the inland hurricane hit southern Illinois in 2009, Ameren Illinois called in tractor trailers lined with bunk beds and parked them in a safe staging area. The utility served meals in a local mess tent and brought in additional tractor trailers filled with washers and dryers so support staff could do laundry for the linemen.

“Everything was there, so they could just pick it up and go,” Clarida said. “It was unreal how much of the materials they had out there. I didn’t even have to go to the store room and pick it all up.”

Because Ameren Illinois dispatched such a large workforce to help, the crews were able to get all of the backbone feeders up and the circuits hot four days after the storm hit.

As soon as power was restored, many of the crews were released, but Clarida and several other linemen stayed behind. They then worked 10-hour to 12-hour days six days a week until the end of August to repair the streetlights and help with other damage.

“It was amazing how quickly Ameren brought help in here and got it restored as far as the backbone goes,” Clarida noted. “Our customers couldn’t believe that we got the power back on as quickly as we did.”

By working as a team, focusing on safety  and embracing the local culture and communities, linemen come back from storms with vivid memories that live on forever.

Community Response to Line Crews

Some storms stand out in linemen’s minds, not only because of the destruction but also because of the response of the community when the power is restored. Two linemen share warm memories of past storms when customers went out of their way to thank the line crews.

Hot Cocoa and Candy

John Huizinga, a lineman for Southern California Edison and Local 47, recalls working on a storm when a family made hot cocoa for him and his crew on a barbecue grill, and then a wife came by his job site with a full plate of lasagna. “When her husband asked her why she gave it to us instead of her family, she said, ‘You aren’t getting the lights back on.’

Huizinga also remembers working Hurricane Sandy, and the kids in the neighborhood had to miss trick or treating on Halloween night. To ensure they could celebrate their long-awaited holiday, his utility bought 12,000 bags of candy and set up trucks in Edison, New Jersey. “We were able to hand out candy to the kids that night,” he said. “It was an experience I will not soon forget.”

Please Come In

Mark Berenbach of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power will never forget the response of one customer after the North Ridge Earthquake in 1994. Following the earthquake, a lot of circuits were out, and a line crew visited one house, where the husband worked for the gas utility.

“He had been gone for three days and, when we restored power, the lady asked us to walk through each room of the house to make sure the lights were back on,” Berenbach said. “She was very appreciative, and I kept thinking about my family being without lights for that long, and it was very heartwarming.”

About the Author

Amy Fischbach | Amy Fischbach, EUO Contributing Editor

Amy Fischbach is the contributing editor for the Electric Utility Operations section of Transmission and Distribution World. She worked for Prism Business Media (now Penton) for eight years, most recently as the managing editor of Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro magazine. She is now working as a freelance writer and editor for B2B magazines. Amy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.She serves as the national vice president of the American Society of Business Publication Editors. She can be reached at [email protected].

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!