CU General Manager Tom Wheeler confirmed the volunteers represented 24 line crews from 14 public utility companies in four states — Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Had it not been for their outside assistance, the complicated restoration of roughly one-fourth of Cleveland Utilities’ electric distribution system could have taken at least 43 days or more with crews working 16-hour shifts, Wheeler confirmed Tuesday. As it is, almost 30 crews — including five from Cleveland Utilities — completed the massive task in less than 1 1/2 weeks.
In 10 days, line crews returned power to 17,000 customers; at least, to those users whose homes could be reconnected, Wheeler said.
“We have sent thank-you letters to each of these workers who came here as volunteers,” Wheeler said. “Each came to us as volunteers through their local utility company so we had their names and addresses.”
Cleveland Utilities line workers understand the importance — and the inherent dangers — of responding to distress calls from neighboring utility companies whether the requests for help are coming from the next town, a neighboring county, a bordering state or from several states away.
CU crews have responded willingly to such calls in the past. A couple of weeks prior to the April 27 storms, Cleveland Utilities had dispatched volunteer crews to Chattanooga to provide some quick restoration support.
The local utility has also supplied volunteer crews — and their equipment — to tornado-strewn cities in West and Middle Tennessee in past years such as Jackson and Dickson. Ironically, had tornadoes not ripped through Bradley County, CU likely would have sent volunteers to any number of ravaged communities like Apison, Ringgold, Ga., Tuscaloosa, Ala., or towns in Mississippi that were leveled by April 27 twisters, Wheeler explained.
Here’s how it works with most public utility companies. When distress calls are received, the local utility will inform its line crews of the request for help and ask for volunteers to travel to those communities, taking with them their utility’s trucks and equipment. In most cases, the volunteer workers likely will remain on their own employer’s payroll, but their expenses — food and lodging — are paid by the host utility company, Wheeler said.
In spite of the dangers, line crews will step up.
“You always get people willing to go help out,” Wheeler said. But it’s more than a personal sacrifice or inconvenience. It can be dangerous, he stressed.
“It’s extremely difficult going into a strange electric system to work,” Wheeler noted. “[As the volunteer] you don’t know how the circuits are fed and laid out. When you, as a volunteer, go into a system that is new to you, that’s challenge enough. Add to that going into a system that is badly damaged, and then on top of all that, working at night ... it can be extremely hazardous.”
CU crews understand the danger because many have answered the same call under similar circumstances. No less is true with 104 workers and 24 line crews who traveled to Cleveland at a time when strangers in a distant city needed their help.
Public utility companies, and their host communities, responding to Cleveland Utilities’ call for help in the aftermath of the devastating severe weather outbreak included:
• Etowah Utilities, which is from Etowah.
• Frankfort Plant Board from Frankfort, Ky.
• Harriman Utility Board from Harriman.
• Henderson Municipal Power & Light from Henderson, Ky.
• Leesburg Electric Department from Leesburg, Fla.
• Maryville Electric Department from Maryville.
• McMinnville Electric System from McMinnville.
• Morristown Utility Systems from Morristown.
• Orlando Utilities Commission from Orlando, Fla.
• Owensboro Municipal Utilities from Owensboro, Ky.
• Pike Electric Inc. from Mount Airy, N.C.
• Sweetwater Utilities from Sweetwater.
• Tullahoma Utilities Board from Tullahoma.
• Dillard Smith Construction Company from New Market, Tenn.
In the thank-you letter to responding line workers, Wheeler said the severity of the powerful storms that raked across Bradley County “immediately overwhelmed” the local utility in its rebuilding task. The letter added, “On behalf of myself, our Cleveland Utilities Board and our citizens of Bradley County, I want to personally thank you for your assistance. You worked long hours in dangerous and demanding conditions. We will forever be grateful for your assistance.”
As thankful as Cleveland Utilities is for the outside crews, the local utility’s customers should be even more appreciative, Wheeler noted.
“It’s not that you can’t restore power [to your customers],” Wheeler said. “It’s that you’re trying to get it back on to as many people as possible while doing it as quickly as possible.”
That’s the importance of outside volunteers because hardworking CU line workers — even working 16-hour shifts — would have needed anywhere from 43 days to a couple of months to restore all electric service without outside help.
“People just aren’t going to wait that long,” Wheeler acknowledged.
The Cleveland Utilities leader said he is confident the local public utility company — and its line crews — will return the favor to any of the responding communities if disaster should befall them.