And so, the two-week adventure was under way for two CU “storm break” crews whose five workers and three heavy trucks had been dispatched to the devastated Northeast. There, they had joined thousands of other utility linemen from across the nation to help turn the lights back on for millions left in the dark by the powerful hurricane.
Hundreds of local utility workers were already at work upon their arrival; hundreds more were en route from locations as far away as the West Coast and Louisiana.
Partnering with a six-member team from the Murfreesboro (TN) Electric Department, the 11 Tennessee volunteers had arrived in Dover two days earlier on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, in advance of the approaching hurricane. At the time, Dover was in the direct path of the megastorm; however, its direction shifted and the hurricane’s eye traveled about 17 miles north of the Delaware city.
It was good news for the town and bad news for areas above it. For the CU and Murfreesboro teams, it meant less work in Dover, but extensive power grid repairs in their next two cities — Milltown and Chatham, both in the hard-hit state of New Jersey. Milltown is a small borough located about 40 miles south of New York City. Chatham Township is its next-door neighbor.
Joining McClain on the CU storm break crews were Travis Ownby, line foreman; and three linemen, Ernie Cannon, Steve Kiser and Max McCann. Collectively, they have given Cleveland Utilities more than 105 working years in their utility careers.
Part of that service has included emergency work in storm-ravaged sites as close as Chattanooga, North Georgia and Kentucky, and now as far away as New England.
“This is the longest any of our crews have ever been gone, and the farthest they’ve ever traveled,” according to Jamie Creekmore, CU customer service representative.
The names of almost the entire group of CU Electric Division linemen are included on a volunteer list of storm break workers who agree to travel to other areas in emergencies to help restore electric service in the aftermath of natural disasters. It works on a rotation basis. Once a linemen works an emergency call out-of-town, his name goes back to the bottom of the rotation.
When Superstorm Sandy devastated the Northeast, the names of McClain, Ownby, Cannon, Kiser and McCann topped the list. Their response was as quick as it was automatic.
With the news that Sandy’s path was likely to head inland, Ownby recalled, “... I told Murph (a fill-in supervisor) to get us a trip up that evening,” and preparation for travel by the storm break crews who were on rotation began immediately.
It’s called storm break with good reason.
“That’s an old lineman’s term,” McClain cited. “A storm’s come through and it’s broke stuff. Whether it’s a snowstorm or a tornado — ”
“ — Or a hurricane,” Kiser added.
“Or a hurricane,” McClain agreed.
McClain, Kiser and Ownby sat down recently with the Cleveland Daily Banner to talk about their two weeks of storm recovery. McCann and Cannon could not attend due to work and vacation commitments.
After pulling into Dover on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 28, a little more than 24 hours before Sandy’s approach, the CU and Murfreesboro teams spent most of the day Monday restoring a few power lines that already had been broken by wind-snapped tree limbs.
It was a full day of work, but not a frantic one. In anticipation of the brewing storm, most of the town had shut down, leaving utility workers — local and out-of-town — to do their jobs. By about 6 p.m., the CU crews were finishing another repair and Sandy’s heavy winds were beginning to whip through.
“When we got finished with that case of trouble (power lines down), they (Dover utility leaders) told us it would be Tuesday morning before they would get us out again,” McClain remembered. “They told us it was time to take cover.”
As CU workers were completing the day’s final job, winds were becoming a factor.
“The winds were getting dangerously high,” McClain noted. “They told us to go ahead and [go back to the hotel], and to get plenty of rest. They told us we’d probably need it.”
The CU team rode out the storm Monday night in their hotel rooms and Tuesday morning is when McClain sent his text, “Alive. Going to change out a pole.”
The crew worked throughout Tuesday in the rain. CU and Murfreesboro crews worked different sites, but compared to the damage that awaited the teams in Milltown and Chatham, Dover came away with minimal problems.
“Dover really didn’t have a whole lot of trouble,” McClain said. Crews labored for more than half the day with Dover teams, but by 2 p.m. most of the town’s lost power was restored. The Tennessee teams were cleared to head for their next destination — Milltown — but not before sitting down at a Dover restaurant to enjoy their first real meal in two days. Food had been scarce on Monday because the city — and its restaurants — had shut down.
Wednesday morning saw the CU crews embark for Milltown, and that’s when the story changed.
“We headed north ... we were on a four-lane highway and all of a sudden we started seeing broke pole after broke pole after broke pole,” McClain said.
After a few more miles, the crews reached areas where the storm had wiped out complete electrical service, including Milltown, a New Jersey borough of 7,000 whose 3,000 utility customers were all without power.
“As soon as the police saw us, they stopped all the traffic and escorted us straight to City Hall where the superintendent of utilities, a man named Don Hermann, met us,” McClain explained.
Milltown has its own utility system, but receives its power from a provider. The town’s system was badly damaged, including the transmission line that feeds the substation. The CU and Murfreesboro crews began their tasks by midafternoon. The CU crews worked the town’s south side and their Murfreesboro partners worked the north.
“We just started repairing everything we came to,” McClain said. “[The provider had told them] it would be Friday before they got power to the substation again so we just started repairing everything so they would be ready for power when it came back on.”
Because the crews were now working 16-hour shifts, they toiled until well after dark. That night they were taken back to City Hall where they were fed an evening meal in the courtroom.
“They had us spaghetti and meatballs,” McClain smiled. “They really like their pasta up there.”
“Lots of Italian food,” Ownby added.
“Lots of Italian,” Kiser added.
In Milltown, the Tennesseans were boarded at night in the Rescue Squad headquarters in bunk rooms upstairs. The group slept in bunks and on cots.
“We had four men in a room,” McLain noted. “... Lots of snoring going on. I would highly recommend earplugs next time.”
For the next two days, the crews worked to erect poles and replace broken power lines in the small utility company’s aging system that the superintendent had described as old and “tired.” McClain said much of it had been built in the 1940s and ’50s.
Milltown suffered a lot of broken power lines, but crews witnessed few homes that were badly damaged. By comparison, the damage inflicted on Cleveland and Bradley County by the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, was much heavier, Ownby explained. However, these were condensed areas, which is a tornado’s pattern. In hurricanes, the damage is much more widespread and not as condensed, Ownby and Kiser pointed out.
“Milltown had very few broke poles,” Ownby said. “Mostly, they had lines down ... big trees took them down.”
By late Friday night, Nov. 2, the Tennessee teams had completed their Milltown recovery. On Saturday morning, they were dispatched to Chatham Township which sat on the outskirts of New York City. Here, they encountered the worst damage of their two weeks of recovery work.
Most Chatham residents work in New York City and make the daily commute, McClain said.
“They had a lot of broke poles,” Ownby said.
“Just going further north, from Milltown to Chatham ... about 48 miles, there was a huge difference in damage,” McClain noted.
“In Chatham, they had a lot of large trees down,” Kiser said. “I don’t know how many broke poles they had. On the way home (a week later), I looked out the truck window and saw five tractor-trailer loads of poles headed north. Sandy was more widespread. Sandy did more damage by far [in many areas, but not Dover and Milltown] than our tornadoes did here in Cleveland.”
As hard as the crews had worked in Milltown, their task may have been doubled in Chatham. The long shifts continued and here the CU and Murfreesboro teams had to be especially careful because more home generators were in use.
“One of the biggest struggles I saw [in Chatham] was people trying to get gas for their generators, so we were having to be real careful,” McClain said. “There were a lot of generators running ... that can create an issue of backfeed on the [power] lines.”
The newest challenge in Chatham blew in Wednesday night, Nov. 7. Utility crews were still working to restore power from Sandy’s damage throughout much of the Northeast when the nor’easter named Winter Storm Athena arrived. Its blustery winds blanketed Chatham with 7 1/2 inches of snow, but utility crews kept working.
“It started raining Wednesday and we worked in the rain all day,” Kiser said. “Then, sometime early that afternoon it started snowing. It wasn’t just snow, it was a blowing snow.”
Already aware before leaving Cleveland on Oct. 27 that temperatures were expected to drop up North, the CU team packed warm gear; however, they weren’t expecting a heavy winter storm.
“Working in those conditions can be brutal, but anybody that’s seasoned or has been out here long enough knows [to stay prepared],” McClain explained.
Not long before, CU had invested in new winter-lined gloves for its linemen.
“They came in real handy,” Ownby said.
McClain added, “That was the first time that we had those gloves, but we put them to good use up there.”
During their week in Chatham, the Tennessee workers were embraced by the township’s emergency workers group. The utility workers were fed at night at the firehall, and at the Presbyterian Church on election night.
“They fed us hot meals,” McClain recalled. “When they realized we had been gone [from home] for so long, a group of ladies volunteered to do our laundry. They collected 11 bags of laundry one morning and when we got back that evening they had folded everything and put it all back in the sacks. One kid even drew me a picture and wrote me a thank-you note.”
Wherever they worked, the CU crews reported being received well, and especially in Milltown and Chatham where the damage was worse.
“The people in Milltown are proud of their community,” McClain noted. “The police chief even told me it was probably the closest thing to Mayberry you’ll ever see.” He pointed out this same police chief had worked the 9/11 terror strike disaster in New York City, and now had damaged lungs due to his recovery work.
“Everywhere we went we were widely accepted by both the communities and the companies we were working for,” McClain stressed.
CU crew members recalled in Milltown residents who saw the “Cleveland Utilities” sign on the local trucks would assume they were Ohio workers. The Milltown utility leaders always made a point to correct the oversight.
McClain chuckled at the memory.
“Yeah, the guy leading us would always let them know, ‘No, that’s Tennessee!’” McClain mused. “Next thing you knew, they were all over there wanting to shake our hands.”
In both Milltown and Chatham, and especially Milltown, residents in neighborhoods where the CU crews worked were constantly emerging from their homes and offering coffee, bottled water, food, snacks ... even Halloween candy.
“In their eyes, we were heroes,” McClain said. “There’s no doubt about it ... they felt like we were heroes.”
Kiser added, “We were able to provide something for them ... the repairs we were making would enable them to turn their lights back on.”
Ownby said their northeastern reception was a moving experience for the workers.
“They showed us a lot of hospitality, and were always bringing out stuff ... coffee, donuts, you name it,” Ownby cited.
McClain smiled when thinking about the kindness shown by the New Jersey residents.
“They were always coming out with something in their hands ... wanting to thank us,” he remembered. “Seriously, even if you didn’t need it, it was better to accept [their food and beverage offerings] because it made them feel better if you took it.”
Kiser agreed, “They were always bringing stuff out to us while we were working. They were very appreciative.”
Their tasks completed, the CU crews left Chatham Friday morning, Nov. 9. It was Kiser’s birthday. They pulled into the Cleveland Utilities parking lot at about noon on Saturday.
“I can remember when I rolled in last Saturday ... when I turned into the gate my son was right there waiting on me,” McLain offered. After a pause, he added, “... That was kind of emotional.”
CU crew members thanked a lot of people who supported them on the recovery trip. But one in particular is Amy Ensley, a CU Operations Department employee who served as their “go to” partner back in Cleveland. Ensley booked their hotel arrangements, completed much of the paperwork electronically and relayed messages from them to their families, as well as provided regular updates about the workers to their loved ones throughout the two-week mission.
“Amy is someone I would like to thank and to recognize,” McClain said.
Kiser added, “This whole trip would not have gone as smooth without her help.”
Ownby agreed and credited her for the team’s logistical support.
Kiser recalled a closing comment received in Chatham.
“When he knew we were leaving the next day, one person who was working with us told us they were all well pleased with how diligently we worked and how we went about doing our jobs,” Kiser said. “They were truly thankful.”
And the feeling among the CU workers was mutual.
(Editor’s Note: In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving, the Cleveland Daily Banner will publish a followup article and additional on-site photographs in Thursday’s edition in which the CU crew members will discuss what they have taken away from this storm-recovery experience. Their gratitude to the communities, and to the neighborhoods, where they worked for two weeks was just as strong as that expressed by the northeastern recipients).