Every Storm Has a Silver Lining

Aug. 4, 2004
One lineman shares the ups and downs of a career devoted to storm restoration.

I’ve been working storms all my adult life. In 1965, I went to work for Duke Power Co. as a junior engineer fresh out of North Carolina State. The first storm I remember happened after I moved to Winston Salem and had gone to work for the electric company. There was about 14 inches of wet snow out my back door and broken tree limbs in the yard. My power had just gone off, so I was starting a camper stove to provide some heat. Just then, a big burly lineman knocked on my door. My boss had sent him to tell me either to come to work or this guy would bring me in. That was the first and last time anyone had to come and get me for a storm.

Since that winter 38 years ago, I have worked storms all over the United States and in other countries. In most cases, I was the team leader who oversaw the entire operation along with the team leader of the host utility.

Pulling Together
One thing about powerline construction people—the contractors and power companies—is that they find a way to get there. When a bad storm is coming, it never enters your mind to stay home. You prepare for it and stay prepared by keeping clothes packed for extended time away from home.

Storms bring people, organizations and communities together. Employees bond. Neighbors start helping neighbors. Everyone has a common goal—to get their lives back to normal.

It used to be you only worried about ice storms, high winds and hurricanes, but in recent years, there has been an increased need for power restoration due to other reasons. Today, our systems are loaded to the point that a severe electric storm, heat wave or prolonged cold spell can put a system out of service. Transformers need replacing, and some circuits are becoming overloaded. As a result, we are seeing more and more calls for outage restoration help that is not storm related.

Proud to be American
The most impressive thing I have seen is the way the public responds. As linemen, we are there to restore the system. That’s our job. But, without us ever asking, in every storm I have worked, people offer their help. Although they don’t have the knowledge or skills to restore powerlines, they are willing to help you do it. People support us with food, lodging, guides and offer assistance wherever they can.

I can’t brag enough about the American people. I have worked storms in other countries, and I can tell you, Americans rise to the occasion. People say Americans are soft, but that’s not true. They show up ready to help however they can, and they are so appreciative. They realize our work is very dangerous. When everything is out, and everything has stopped—the airports are closed, the highways are closed, the water won’t run, the emergency generators are running at the hospitals and linemen show up to an area that looks like it has just been bombed—firemen, law enforcement and the public show up with their own to help out. They are honest, hard working and compassionate.

Lines and Lives Torn Apart
The hardest part of storms isn’t necessarily the physical work and long hours, it’s the emotional strain. Hurricane Andrew was probably the largest storm I have ever worked. It required thousands of workers from dozens of companies. One night, a young lady walked up to my truck as we were putting a double circuit up across a major intersection and asked how to get to the bus stop. I told her I didn’t know anything about the bus systems, but I knew there was a Red Cross shelter up the road. She started crying and said, “When you get through here, you will go home, but I do not have a home to go to.” She was now homeless. Storms are rugged, but sometimes the toughest thing is seeing lives torn apart.

Another time, we went into a mobile home park that probably contained 300 units. There, we saw a young couple sitting in a truck eating sandwiches and potato chips. They told us their home had been blown away, and all they had left was the pickup truck they were sitting in. Although it's our responsibility to rebuild power lines, the hardest part of the job is not being able to do more for the people affected by storms.

Angels in Hardhats
During Hurricane Floyd, we helped Progress Energy in eastern North Carolina. It had rained so much inland that the water couldn’t get to the ocean fast enough. Combined wind and flooding caused a lot of damage.

While we were driving our truck down the highway, one of my foreman saw a vehicle about 60 ft off to the side of the road. It was submerged in about 8 to 10 ft of water and sinking. My foreman swam out to the truck, opened the door and found an elderly gentleman. The foreman managed to get him out of the truck and safely to shore, then left the man in the care of another utility employee and went on down the road.

As the storm progressed, I listened to a local radio station. You can learn a lot about the local morale and conditions by listening to what is being broadcast. A few days later, I kept hearing on the radio about this older person who had been saved by a power company worker, and the family wanted to know who it was so they could thank him. When I asked the foreman about it, he said, “Yes, that was me,” but he wasn’t interested in being recognized. I asked why, and he said he was too busy; he just considered it a part of his job.

Eventually, the local news station in Wilmington interviewed the foreman in that gentleman’s living room. On network television, the gentleman said, “I knew I was going to die and I was ready. Then, out of nowhere, an angel appeared.” Pointing to the foreman, he said, “There is the angel.”

Another time, we were in Maine working an ice storm. It seemed no one could get anywhere during the storm. However, with our big trucks, we were able to get through to some remote locations. We found an elderly man lying in the snow. He had lost power and was trying to find help. We often find people who are alone and think that if they don’t get out and try to get help, no one will find them. Although fire fighters and other emergency response people are wonderful, sometimes they don’t find people until it’s too late.

A Smile Needs No Interpretation
I distinctly remember a unusual situation we ran across in Puerto Rico during Hurricane George in 1994. We were working in the mountains doing most of our work using helicopters. There, we came across an older man living on the side of the mountain. He spoke little English, so it was difficult to understand why he was so excited to see us. He kept talking about “Hugo.” The storm we were working was called “George.” Finally, we realized he had been without power since Hurricane Hugo, which was in 1989. No wonder he was so happy—he had been without electricity for more than five years. Although we had difficulty understanding his Spanish, smiles mean the same in all languages.

Tom D. Smitherman worked for Duke Energy and its subsidiaries for more than 37 years until the Energy Delivery Field Services division was purchased in 2003 by The Shaw Group. He is now vice president of the Northern Operations Division for Shaw Energy Delivery Services and is based in Kernersville, North Carolina. (The quilt was handquilted by Smitherman’s wife, Carolyn, from shirts collected from various storms.) [email protected]

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