— Christopher Reeve
American Actor & Activist
Victims of disaster are often the first to render aid when others face perils of their own; it isn’t because they are special, but because they remember.
No one better understands the feelings of hopelessness nor the darkening shades of despair than those who have struggled through a past crisis; they know what it was like for them so they have the experience to benefit others facing a similar tragedy.
On April 27, 2011, Cleveland and Bradley County residents faced down sheer terror for a horrifying 12 hours as five murderous tornadoes shred parts of our community into a battleground of debris while taking the lives of loved ones from nine families. Almost 300 homes were destroyed, hundreds of others suffered minor to severe damage, and in some areas infrastructure took a pounding.
One of the heaviest impacts came with the Cleveland Utilities electric grid. One-fourth of CU’s power distribution system was destroyed. At the height of the emergency, some 17,000 homes and businesses were without lights representing about 60 percent of CU’s customer base.
CU line crews were dispatched immediately to begin the exhausting restoration of a power grid that had taken years to build, yet was destroyed within a few blinks. As hard as they worked, it quickly became apparent CU’s crews were overwhelmed. The damage was too severe. Their numbers were too few.
Distress calls went out and emergency crews began arriving within hours from other utility companies throughout much of the Southeast. Thanks to 16-hour days by existing CU Electric Division linemen, by a few crews that were patched together using retirees and workers from other CU departments, and by more than 30 crews from out-of-town, full electrical service was restored by the 11th day. Without the invaluable assistance of others, the recovery would have taken weeks and perhaps even months.
Weather-weary residents, some still in mourning from personal and property losses, celebrated the return of this simple amenity which too many take for granted just too often. Truly, customers had their patience tested, but the delays were never from a lack of will by CU; rather, it was a lack of way by overburdened recovery workers.
It is those workers who remember best.
It is those workers who vowed to return the favor granted them by total strangers from utility companies of far-away cities and distant states.
It is those workers who stood in unison in the face of Superstorm Sandy and who volunteered to travel to the Northeast to help utility companies in small towns, burroughs and cities to rebuild their own decimated infrastructures.
Cleveland Utilities sent two line crews — consisting of three trucks and five workers — to Dover, Del. They were accompanied by two crews — six workers — from the Murfreesboro Electric Department. The utility partners completed their Dover task within three days, and then were redeployed to a New Jersey burrough called Milltown whose damage was far more severe.
All of Milltown, with a population of about 7,000 and 3,200 electric utility customers, lost their power. CU and Murfreesboro crews began their work by mid-afternoon last Wednesday and were expecting at least four full days of power distribution grid recovery. Once finished, they were expected to be moved again to yet another leveled town or a badly damaged burrough.
Volunteer Energy Cooperative was expected to do the same if needed in addition to contracted crews that they sent in advance of the megastorm.
Bart Borden, vice president of CU’s Electric Division, said it best when he reflected on April 27, 2011, and how the local utility company learned a valuable lesson — that strength comes in numbers, and that’s why CU was among the first to respond to the Northeast’s plea for assistance.
“This is totally voluntary,” Borden said of his CU linemen. “But they want to go help. It’s in their hearts to help others.”
He added, “Obviously, from those tornadoes, we realized how important it is to have help in times like this. Our men realized this ... it’s just in their blood to go help others. Their entire service is to help other people in need.”
Life teaches plenty of lessons.
One is to remember the kindness of others; another is to honor its virtue by reciprocating in times of need.
CU’s line workers are a poster child for this endearing message.
Godspeed in their return home.