Bart Borden, vice president of CU’s Electric Division, said the local line crews began power restoration work in the New Jersey borough by mid-afternoon Wednesday.
With a population of only about 7,000, Milltown has its own municipal government operations, but damage in the borough from the megastorm was so severe that the entire city was without power, Borden explained.
Milltown is located about four miles south of Rutgers University.
CU crews are partnering with another set of Tennessee volunteers from the Murfreesboro Electric Department which dispatched six of its own linemen to work in two crews. The Cleveland and Murfreesboro crews worked together in Dover which at one point was thought to be in Sandy’s direct path; however, the storm hit just north of the town, saving the populace some of the same heartaches as their outlying neighbors.
Milltown was not so lucky.
The entire city was without power and this includes 3,200 electric utility customers.
“When our crews moved from Dover to Milltown, they told us they were counting the number of downed transmission poles,” Borden told the Cleveland Daily Banner on Thursday. “But it got to be so many that they stopped counting. There’s a lot of devastation to their power system.”
And that’s just the utility provider. Borden’s description does not include the borough’s other infrastructure and building damage.
“All 3,200 customers are out of power,” Borden said. “Their transmission provider is out of power ... their entire city is out of power.”
CU and Murfreesboro workers, like other utility responders who have traveled from as far away as southern California, are working seven days a week and 16-hour days. It’s the same exhausting schedule that CU linemen and more than 30 responding outside crews worked in the aftermath of the April 27, 2011, tornadoes that destroyed 25 percent of CU’s electric grid, leaving as many as 30,000 without power in the beginning.
Eleven days after the five tornadoes, CU and outside crews had restored power to all areas disrupted by the historic storms.
In Milltown, it’s a familiar scene for the five CU workers. All worked storm recovery in Cleveland after the killer twisters 18 months ago.
“They’re telling us there likely will be four solid days of work in Milltown,” Borden said. “But our guys have told us they are being taken care of by the town ... by the mayor and the leaders in charge. They’re being taken good care of.”
Borden said CU works closely with its employees who want to volunteer to help storm damage victims in other communities.
“Any time we send [our workers] out of town, we just want to be assured they’re safe and that their needs are being taken care of,” Borden said.
Milltown’s story is eerily familiar. Like Cleveland some 1 1/2 years ago, Milltown has never faced this degree of devastation.
“They [Milltown leaders] were very pleased to receive our help,” Borden cited. “They even stated this was the first time they had ever received assistance from the outside.”
Cleveland Utilities is staying in touch daily with its workers thanks to cellphones and a line foreman.
“He is communicating with them regularly,” Borden said.
Once all the lights are back on in Milltown, the CU and Murfreesboro crews are expected to be deployed to yet another disaster zone somewhere in the Northeast. Borden said he and CU President and CEO Tom Wheeler are prepared for the first crew to work two weeks before plotting their next move.
“We’re monitoring their work on a daily basis,” Borden explained. “Tom [Wheeler] has indicated two weeks would probably be the maximum to leave these men in that work environment. [At that point], we would then make a decision on whether to bring them home or send replacements.”
He added, “We would have to look at the facts and the situation.”
Crews traveling from Tennessee are covering a lot of highway, but Borden pointed to those traveling all the way from the West Coast.
“That alone tells you how great the need is,” he stressed.
Of the CU and Murfreesboro workers, and other local utility companies like Volunteer Energy Cooperative that are dispatching line men or contractors, Borden said their employers are keeping them in their thoughts.
“We’re keeping them in our prayers,” Borden stated. “We’re very concerned about them. We would ask the public to do the same, and to pray for their safety and well-being while they’re in harm’s way.”
Like many utility companies that are members of the American Public Power Association, CU maintains a rotation list of employees who want to volunteer their assistance to storm-ravaged areas.
“We make this kind of assistance available to those who are in line for it,” Borden explained. “They [those on the list] have first refusal. This is totally voluntary. But they want to go help. It’s in their hearts to help others.”
CU workers’ desire to help others grew even more after out-of-state crews from several surrounding southeastern states came to Cleveland’s aid following the horrific tornado outbreak.
“Obviously, from those tornadoes, we realized how important it is to have help in times like this,” Borden said. “Our men realized this ... it’s just in their blood to go help others. Their entire service is to help other people in need.”
Borden said CU partnered with Murfreesboro Electric because both are APPA members and the two systems are similar in size and capacity.
“We have a lot of commonality,” he noted.
Of the Milltown crisis, Borden said crews are working through long hours in fatiguing conditions.
“But they’re very seasoned to this kind of work schedule,” he noted. “They’ve experienced it before.”
It’s part of the life of a utility line crew, especially those who have been on the receiving end of such a massive emergency response.
“We’re just trying to make ourselves available to help in these areas that are in desperate need of our help,” Borden stressed. “Any one of them would do the same for us.”
Earlier this week, Wheeler said CU remains on standby to determine if right-of-way clearing crews will be needed in days ahead to clear and pick up fallen trees and debris.
Both CU and VEC contract with Asplundh Tree Expert Co. to provide clearing and tree-trimming services.