Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 18, 2012

Linemen in Long Island

Local crew working on East Coast's damaged power lines

BY ANNE STANTON
astanton@record-eagle.com

WILIAMSBURG — A locally based crew of men at work on storm-damaged power lines on Long Island are spending their nights in the relative comfort of a fire station, an improvement over previous digs in the back of a semi-truck.

Forty-three men who work for SKF Electrical Contracting, a Williamsburg company, headed to the storm-ravaged East Coast more than two weeks ago to return power to residents. That's a typical day at the office for a crew that repairs electrical lines at the country's worst disaster sites, said Tina Rauch, SKF president.

"Our linemen left on Oct. 28 and started working in Massachusetts, then to Connecticut, and from there they went to Long Island, which is where they are right now," Rauch said.

The going has been tough, said Teresa Wahl-Beck, whose husband, Kevin Beck, is one of the linemen, about half of whom remain on the job. He was in a convoy of big utility trucks moving from Connecticut to Massachusetts when a powerful snow slammed into them, she said.

"It took them an hour and half to go 10 miles because semis were jackknifed all along the road," Wahl-Beck said.

Early on, crew members trudged into hotels after their 16-hour work days. That changed Nov. 9 when they arrived at Islip, a small rural town of 32,000 in the center of Long Island.

"The utility was putting thousands of workers up in this big parking lot, semi-truck after semi-truck, with nothing but bunk beds in the back of the trucks, outhouses, and a big tent where they could eat," said Wahl-Beck.

The Williamsburg crew spent just one night in semi-truck digs before they received good news.

"My husband Bob ... he happened to be in the right place at the right time," Rauch said. "A lady comes out there from the power company, and she was figuring out where to put everybody and mentioned a fire department was giving them their place for some workers. No one spoke up, and my husband said, 'I'll take it.'

"She just gave it to us. We've been the only ones there," she said.

The Central Islip Fire Department is headed up by Fire Commissioner Chuck Doyle, himself a lineman for the Long Island Power Authority.

"We'd open up our doors to anybody who has a major disaster, and these guys were sleeping in some tough quarters. They're happy to be here," he said.

Doyle said Islip has had some damage, but nothing like the shoreline and the northern end of Long Island, where the local crew labors.

"It's getting better," Doyle said. "We have some badly hit communities where the flooding took over."

More than 8 million people in the Northeast lost power from Superstorm Sandy and a nor'easter, but folks in Long Island suffered most. Some homes have been without power for three weeks.

Rauch said her crew is seeing boots-on-the-ground evidence of problems. The utility, unable to pin down which homes lack power, hasn't kept up with necessary tags for line repair.

"We have people just cry to our workers, 'Can you help us? Can you help put the power on again?'" Rauch said. "If a person doesn't call, the utility company doesn't know their power is out. Our crew is only supposed to work 16 hours a day, but if they're there, they stay and get it done."

SKF Electrical Contracting is one of hundreds of subcontractors that wade in when a national emergency arises. About 6,400 linemen and 3,700 tree trimmers are at work in New York City, compared to 200 linemen on a normal day, according to an Associated Press article.

Wahl-Beck, who speaks with her husband at least twice a day for just minutes at a time, said the crew sometimes works until midnight. Thousands of homes still lack electricity, but about half of the 43 linemen hired by SKF Electrical returned here on Nov. 11.

Some had to get back to their normal jobs, while others lacked the specific skills needed to continue. That left about 22 men who still call the fire department their temporary home. Wahl-Beck said she doesn't know when her husband will get back.

"They never tell them. I never know when he comes until the day he comes home," Wahl-Beck said.

Rauch said she's trying to think of something special to send to the fire department by way of thanks.

"They made ravioli one night. My husband said it's the best he's ever tasted. They're going all out for them," Rauch said.