TRAVERSE CITY — Corey Schichtel volunteered for what turned into a 10-day odyssey of 16- to 18-hour days in an effort to restore power in the ice-ravaged cities of Lansing and East Lansing.
He and several other Traverse City Light & Power employees sacrificed their holidays to help secure light and heat to downstate communities, but Schichtel voiced only one lament:
"The only regrets I have is when I go to bed at night and knowing how cold it is and that there's still people without power," he said. "When you go to bed, even though you know you are starving for sleep, you feel bad that you are failing them. It's difficult to stop and even eat."
Schichtel, Tim Adams, and Branden Wheaton left at about noon on Dec. 22 after Light & Power officials responded to a request for mutual aid from the Lansing Board of Water and Light. A fourth local lineman, Brian Zionskowski, joined them on Dec. 27, upping the Traverse City contingent to four men and two service trucks.
The men start their days as early as 6 a.m. and work until midnight or later; they take a one-hour lunch break in the late afternoon.
The storm that swept through Michigan the weekend before Christmas initially left an estimated 598,000 homes and businesses without power. Lansing's utility board originally reported outages to about 40,000 of its 95,800 customers. Utility officials reported on their website that they had 32 line crews out working on Dec. 23, including the two from Traverse City.
The Traverse City contingent began work as soon as they arrived, paired with what is known as a "bird dog," a person who knows the system and facilitates their work. Light & Power sent its four-wheel drive truck with a long bucket arm, and crews worked on repairing main circuit lines for the first seven days. They are now down to restoring power to individual customers.
They worked through Christmas and Christmas Eve and Schichtel said they may well toil through today. His wife and young daughter came down to the Light & Power office to see him off, knowing he wouldn't be home for Christmas.
"My family understands and they know what I do," he said. "They are proud of us, proud of our whole team.
"My daughter told me, 'I thought Christmas was for family to be together,' and I said 'honey, your Christmas gift is for your dad to go down and turn the lights on for the little children who don't have any,'" Schichtel said. "She was OK with that."
Schichtel said the storm damage resembles what the Traverse City area experienced during the March 2012 storm, when ice and snow collapsed trees and power lines and cut power to about two-thirds of the city. But Traverse City has alleys, Schichtel said, which provides access for bucket trucks to most power lines.
Many Lansing streets don't have alleys, so much of the time the work involves ladders and climbing by hand through residential back yards, and requires plenty of crawling over fences and under branches.
But powerless residents are appreciative and bestow gifts of coffee and cookies on the utility workers, Schichtel said.
Amanda Idema of Lansing noticed the Light & Power logo on a truck in her neighborhood shortly before her power was restored on Christmas Day. She sent an email to utility officials and thanked them for their help.
"It's just gratitude, really. Those guys didn't have to be down here ... working those long hours in the cold and miss Christmas with their families," Idema said. "It was pretty bad down here. Whatever the Traverse City crews did to help and and continue to do is much appreciated."