Professional pride powers workers who came to fix downed lines
Line workers came from all over to help restore power to nearly 400,000 Puget Sound Energy customers after last week's storm, and many are still working on it.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PSE storm responseBY THE NUMBERS
Lineworkers from here and elsewhere: Nearly 1,400
Damage sites: 311
Fuses replaced: 8,000
Wire replaced: 70 miles
Poles replaced: 250
Wire splices: 28,000
Source: Puget Sound Energy
In the gloom of a rainy afternoon, workers tightened the sagging wires from their perch in a white bucket truck, high above Redondo Way South. Somewhere, about 166 Puget Sound Energy customers were edging closer to having electricity restored.
Lured by lucrative overtime and professional pride in coming to the rescue, more than 1,100 line workers from multiple states and Canada flocked to the Northwest to help in the wake of last week's ice storm. Most began arriving last Thursday but with 12,000 Puget Sound Energy customers still out of power Tuesday night, the lineworkers have been asked to stay around for a few more days, said Brandon Erickson, general foreman with Interna tional Line Builders (ILB).
Puget Sound Energy contracts with ILB and other companies to help restore electricity when the problems are more than the company's own crews can handle quickly. Since the storm, the a total of nearly 1,400 lineworkers have restored power to nearly 400,000 homes and businesses — about a third of the utility's customers. Of those that remained in the dark Tuesday night, most were expected to have power restored by Wednesday, with a few that might stretch into Thursday.
For the linemen, it's just as satisfying getting power restored to a few households as it is to many, said Erickson, 38, a second-generation lineman from Oregon.
"People come up to us after being without power for four or five days, they're real happy to have their power back on," he said. "For us it's a pride issue. We work 18-hour shifts but if we're within an hour of someone getting power, we'll just keep working."
Puget Sound Energy has set up a staging area in a tent at Boeing where lineworkers start the day with breakfast and end it with dinner — if they're in the area and not too involved in a job to break free. When that happens it's burgers.
Erickson is clean-cut and wiry, wearing a baseball cap, jeans and Gore-Tex. His truck is filled with pop cans, a Marlboro cigarette pack and a can of Kodiak tobacco. From the front seat, he watches the crew as they replace the crossbars on the telephone poles. He looks for "widow-makers," branches that might fall unexpectedly, and other hazards. The crew has been on the job for hours.
The linemen all have regular day jobs — in the case of the ILB — they were replacing poles for Pacific Gas & Electricity in California when they got news of the storm, got in their trucks and headed north. Many were here in the Christmas snowstorm and power outage a few years ago, Erickson said.
"Storms take priority. When we get home, we'll get a nice rest and then go back to the job we were working on."
For the linemen's families, "it might mean postponing Christmas until the old man gets home," or not being around for an anniversary or birthday. It's an occupation that takes its toll on marriages, said Erickson, a divorced father of two. "You're living in small towns, you're traveling all the time.' "
PSE's trucks and the ones that came in to help with this storm would stretch more than 10 miles if you parked them bumper to bumper, said PSE spokeswoman Gretchen Aliabadi.
Rain streamed down the windshield of Erickson's truck. Greg Daft, a Nevada lineman for ILB, walked up to the truck.
"I'm going to go ahead and energize that," he told Erickson.
Erickson nodded. "It's going to rain today," he said.
"Quack, quack," Daft responded.
"Geez, I love this weather," Erickson said.
"Those trees are going to come down again," he added, looking at others tilting toward the road.
At the end of an 18- or 20-hour shift no one has a problem sleeping. PSE put the crew up in a hotel but on other jobs it's hard to find places to sleep and they end up in Red Cross shelters or sleeping in their trucks, Erickson said. They keep food and water in their trucks at all times, just in case.
The bucket truck has moved away from the line. Daft called dispatch, giving the authorization to "heat it up."
Moments later, a dark neighborhood suddenly turns bright.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BartleyNews.