Blowing through our hometown like a masked bandit, this meteorological anomaly shocked area residents with sustained winds hitting 70 miles per hour en route to toppling trees, breaking limbs and snapping power lines on a hot Thursday evening that will not be forgotten anytime soon.
Some already have likened its devastating impact to the 21 inches of March snow compliments of the Blizzard of ’93 and those merciless tornadoes of April 27, 2011, that leveled 285 homes and took nine innocent lives. While its sheer numbers pale when compared to the destruction of the 1993 and 2011 tragedies, this unexpected fury of Mother Nature pointed yet again to our community’s dependence on public utility systems.
But even more poignantly, such disasters remind us that no matter how advanced our technology, in spite of the finest of equipment and the most well-designed of recovery strategies, it is still a fundamental and select group of workers who are asked to risk their lives in answering the emergency call of a community.
We refer to the line workers of excellent companies like Cleveland Utilities and Volunteer Energy Cooperative, and their counterparts in neighboring communities like Chattanooga and Athens, and those to our south, east and north in Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky.
It is probable at one time or another in years past each utility system has reached out to help the other during times of crisis when limited crews were overwhelmed by the destruction wreaked upon the innocent by paralyzing storms, especially those induced by the late-day heat index of summertime.
Last Thursday’s gust front brought a rare twist. Much of the region was impacted so most public utilities were tasked to take care of their own on their own. In the case of Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board, some of its crews had even been dispatched previously to Western states to provide humanitarian relief from weather-related disasters there. Their numbers already were depleted.
For area utility companies facing the same foe, it was not a case of wouldn’t help others. It was simply a matter of couldn’t.
The EPB had to care for EPB. Volunteer Energy had to concentrate on VEC. And Cleveland Utilities crews were asked to target their own needs in their own hometown.
Their toil was an exhausting one. Their task indeed was daunting.
Within the CU service area, some 12,538 customers lost power by 7:18 p.m. Thursday, leaving them vulnerable to the merciless and thickening humidity. By midnight, only 3,031 were without electrical service and by 8:30 Friday morning all-night crews had whittled the number down to about 100. Determined line workers stayed on the job Friday and into Saturday in temperatures that hit 99 and in some cases triple digits — and this does not speak of the stifling heat index values.
At its peak, VEC had about 14,000 customers without power in its 17-county region. Its Bradley County clients were reported to be the hardest hit. Like CU, VEC crews stayed on the job in sweltering conditions until the job was done.
The invaluable work of the utility line worker so often is a thankless chore. The same is true with other public servants who regularly toil in inclement conditions like cable repairmen, telephone technicians, street and road crews, law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, among others.
But in the world of the line worker, no matter how soon a home’s electrical service is restored, it is never soon enough for some.
As a society, we have fallen victim to our own amenities. Some would say we have become spoiled.
The point is arguable. Yet our insistence on comfort when and how we want it, and at what levels, should not be at issue.
The issue, as we see it, is that average, American, blue-collar workers — those we know as utility line workers — give it their all each and every time that an angered Mother Nature lashes out.
In “The City With Spirit,” we suggest it is best to remember their willingness to sacrifice in the heat of our impatience.