Behind the storm

Lineworkers deal with heat, fatigue and flying pests to help restore power after Hurricane Michael

It was hours after dark when the first crew made its way into the grainy glow of the generator-powered lights of the tent city. The dimness of the light coupled with crewmembers’ slow, lumbering gait, resembled a scene from a zombie movie.

For many of these workers, they were well into at least their second week of working to help restore power in southern Georgia, a land ravaged in the wake of Hurricane Michael. Within hours, they would soon be up to start another 16-hour day.

More than 100 lineworkers representing 16 co-ops from Kentucky are part of a massive restoration effort in several southeastern states.  Most of the Bluegrass contingency is working for Mitchell and Grady electric cooperatives in Georgia. This area is nearly three hours inland, but the damage has left thousands of people without power.

Hurricane Michael was one of the most powerful storms to hit the southeast. A 50-year employee of Mitchell EMC said it was the worst he had ever seen.

The damage in the area spared few. Stretches of houses with at least one downed tree each. Some homes spared when trees fell safely into the front lawn; others were not so lucky. Along the byways, there were fields where pecan trees were blown over at the root and thousands of less hearty, although no less mature, pine trees were snapped like twigs.

Mobilizing the thousands of workers to help with the restoration is no small task.  In the Bluegrass, it starts when the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives gets the call that help is needed.

Each co-op decides whether it has the workers to share because the first commitment is to its own consumer-members. If a co-op has the available labor, it “releases” the workers who then essentially become temporary employees of the co-ops they are traveling to help.  The workers are compensated by that co-op and will work for it as long as requested unless they need to come home to help with issues in Kentucky or for personal reasons.

“Kentucky crews are typically a hot-commodity,” said Robert Thornton, storm coordinator for the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives. “Geographically speaking, Kentucky crews can be to most affected areas in twelve hours or less.  A hurricane or other tropical storm that affects the Southeast usually does not affect Kentucky co-ops.  Crews can also respond quickly to the Midwest during tornado outbreaks or ice-storms.

“I have had several states and co-ops specifically request help from us. When I travel and meet CEOs and other co-op officials from other states, they always mention how impressed they were with the aid they received. Kentucky linemen are known for getting the job done in a safe, efficient, and timely manner.”

Determining where the crews, usually teams of four, will spend their days is also a complicated process. Each crew is assigned a “birddog” –  an employee of the local co-op who understands the grid and can help navigate the crew through the backroads.

The goal is to work on areas that will have the most impact, that will restore power to the most people. Once the “birddog” finds a location where the crew can repair damage, he goes to find the next location.

And every location can have its challenges.  Often, the crews will come across a downed line that has had more debris pile on top from homeowners anxious to remove limbs from their property.

“We understand that people want to get stuff out of their yard,” says Michael Insley crew foreman for Warren RECC. “But this does make it difficult for us, to have to remove all the debris before we can start to repair the lines.”

And while each morning crews load up on poles and other supplies, there is no easy way to predict what will be needed during the day.

“Yesterday, we ran out of supplies, so we had to rely on our ‘birddog’ to help us find places where we could do work like cleaning up debris and other tasks where we didn’t need new poles or line,” says Insley.

Along with fatigue and the unfamiliarity of the territory, the workers are dealing with heat—temperatures are still in the upper 80s in southern Georgia—along with fire ants and gnats.

Oh, the gnats. Although the locals joke that they are much worse in mid-summer, that is little consolation to the workers who are dealing with these pests constantly flying around their heads, and often into their noses and ears.

“These things are the worst,” says Shane Vickers of Jackson Energy. “Bug spray doesn’t work, and you just can’t get rid of them.”

One thing that has provided comfort has been the support of the local communities.  Companies and individuals have donated everything from drinks to socks to help. Those living in the tent city are provided with portable showers along with hot meals.

Still, the long days away from home begin to wear on the crews and staying upbeat is a constant challenge.

“We just try to keep cutting up, trying to make the most of it,” says Insley. “We are a team and when one gets down, we have to be there for them.”

And while it looks like there may be weeks more work before this area of Georgia has power fully restored, the folks back home can be proud of how these workers have personified the spirit of cooperatives.

“These guys from Kentucky have been great,” said one of the Mitchell EMC lineman working alongside the Kentucky contingency. “They have been out here every day giving 100 percent, and we are so grateful they’re here.”