Utility crews head home
by RICK NORTON, Associate Editor
Nov 09, 2012 | 934 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cleveland Utilities
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Tom Wheeler
Two weeks after being dispatched to the hurricane-ravaged Northeast, with the last couple of days and nights spent battling heavy snow and cold winds from a bitter nor’easter, two Cleveland Utilities line crews are returning home.

“We expect our crews back in Cleveland sometime late Saturday,” CU President and CEO Tom Wheeler confirmed Thursday night. “At present, we don’t anticipate sending another crew to take their place. Our information is their area is receiving plenty of fresh help.”

Wheeler’s original intent had been to bring the first crew of CU volunteers home after two weeks of power restoration work in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy which terrorized much of the upper East Coast before zeroing in on the New England states, especially New York and New Jersey and long stretches of the Eastern Shore.

The powerful hurricane, whose outer bands of high winds and heavy rain stretched into the Midwest and parts of the Deep South, left millions without power in the Northeast. Just as the majority were getting their lights back on, a nor’easter — dubbed Winter Storm Athena by some weather agencies and forecasters — blew in and blanketed sections of the same hard-hit areas, with snowfall amounts ranging from a few inches to a foot or more.

Had another crew been needed from CU to relieve the first, Wheeler was prepared to accept a long list of volunteer offers from his electric line workers and to send them to the beleaguered region. However, progress is being made in the Northeast and reinforcements are continuing to arrive from other areas much closer in, Wheeler said.

The two CU crews, consisting of three trucks and five line workers, left Cleveland on Oct. 27 en route to Dover, Del., in advance of the superstorm. At the time, Dover was projected to be in the hurricane’s direct path. However, the furious storm — whose damage estimates are now thought to exceed $50 billion — turned inland and targeted New Jersey and New York, and millions of residents in those states.

Alongside a partner team from the Murfreesboro Electric Department, CU crews completed power restoration work in Dover after only two to three days and were immediately redeployed to Milltown, N.J., a tiny borough of about 7,000 people — all of whom had lost electric service from the hurricane’s savage punch. CU crews worked there for several days and then were dispatched to Madison, N.J., another devastated city.

Madison is located west of Newark and New York City. The town is serviced by Jersey Central Power and Light, a division of FirstEnergy Corp., Wheeler said.

Local crews were busy in Madison reconnecting power lines when the brunt of the nor’easter blew in Wednesday night.

“They have been working in the snow from last night’s storm,” Wheeler said late Thursday.

Like other utility crews, including Northeast locals and thousands of out-of-town line workers, the CU volunteers worked 16-hour shifts seven days a week.

Each of the CU workers is “seasoned” to emergency service, according to Bart Borden, vice president of CU’s Electric Division. In an earlier interview with the Cleveland Daily Banner, Borden said all five workers were involved in power restoration after the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, that destroyed one-fourth of CU’s electric distribution grid.

Like most utility providers, many of whom are members of the American Public Power Association, CU maintains a list of volunteers who are willing to travel out-of-town during times of emergency need. Most involve natural disasters like floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and paralyzing blizzards.

The five CU linemen who offered to help in the Northeast were at the top of the utility’s volunteer rotation. Another crew would have been sent to replace them following two weeks of recovery work had they been needed, Wheeler confirmed.

Borden said this type of work is strictly discretionary and it points to the caliber of workers CU employs.

“This is totally voluntary,” he said. “But they want to go help. It’s in their hearts to help others.”

Like Wheeler, Borden said CU learned 18 months ago the value of outsiders coming in to help overburdened local crews during times of devastation. More than 30 teams traveled from throughout the Southeast to help CU restore its broken power system following last year’s twisters that took nine lives and destroyed almost 300 homes.

The last two weeks of work by the CU crews didn’t go unnoticed — especially by Milltown, whose residents fell in Sandy’s direct path.

In a pair of emails from New Jersey families, Milltown showed its appreciation to Cleveland Utilities.

“I am a victim of Hurricane Sandy,” one message, dated Nov. 1, from “Catherine” read. “I just wanted to say THANK YOU to the employees who took the time and came to help restore my power in Milltown, N.J.”

Another is from Milltown resident Raymond Kleiner whose note, dated Nov. 8, to Cleveland Utilities read, “I live in Milltown, N.J. When [the] storm, Sandy, hit us it knocked out our power for days. I saw your trucks and crew working on my street and I want to say what a GREAT job they did.”

Kleiner’s note added, “I want to thank your employees and your company for assisting us in our time of need. Besides being a hardship on us, I know it was an extreme hardship for the workers who had to brave the elements and being away from their own homes.”

He concluded, “With much appreciation, I say THANK YOU.”

Original damage estimates from Superstorm Sandy ranged from $30 billion to $50 billion; however, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday projected New York City’s damage alone could total $33 billion. This would drive original estimates of the storm’s total damage from the Carolinas to Maine to well beyond $50 billion.

If the figures hold up, it would make Sandy the second most expensive storm in U.S. history, right behind Hurricane Katrina, according to a report by The Associated Press.

The nor’easter that struck many of the same areas Wednesday, and which slowed some of the recovery work, dropped 3 to 6 inches of snow from Connecticut to Rhode Island. Worcester, Mass., reported 8 inches, and Freehold, N.J., had more than a foot. Some parts of Connecticut also received more than a foot of the white stuff.

When Winter Storm Athena hit, some 550,000 homes from Brooklyn to the Jersey shore were still without power; however, temperatures in the Northeast are now warming, and more and more outside utility crews from the region are rotating in and out.

By Sunday, temperatures in southern New England were forecast to edge into the 60s.

Additional information about the CU line workers’ experiences in the devastated Northeast will be published in a future edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner.