November 6, 2012

For utility crews, putting lights on means 'getting the crud off'

Restoring electricity to millions of customers is a task that is mundane as much as it's monumental.

By Jonathan Fahey, The Associated Press

HOBOKEN, N.J. - For utility crews racing to restore power to residents of this waterfront city that have been sitting in the dark for a week, the task is both mundane and monumental: Clean a bunch of gunk off electrical equipment with rags and cleaning spray.

That's the way it has been across the Northeast, as crews clean, replace and fix the equipment needed to get the lights back on for millions of customers who lost power when Superstorm Sandy blew through.

In Hoboken, the salty, filthy floodwater of the Hudson River swamped a substation that relays power to 10,000 homes and businesses. It worked its way into switches and in between wires. It washed over the hunks of copper and silver capable of handling 26,000 volts of electricity.

It fouled everything below a perfectly straight line of dirt on all the boxes of circuit breakers and transformers on site that marked the crest of the flood.

"It's getting the crud off," said Mike Fox, a Public Service Electric and Gas Co. engineer who was supervising the company's substation restoration. "It's nothing earth shaking, but it's a lot of stuff."

Sixty-seven thousand utility workers in the Northeast are working day and night on tasks they are familiar with: putting up utility poles, stringing wire and replacing transformers. But Sandy's storm surge added another dimension by attacking the utilities' internal equipment. Switching stations, substations and underground electrical networks were inundated in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Hoboken and elsewhere.

But it's the sheer volume of work that is making the power outages last so long for some. At the peak, 8.5 million homes and businesses were without power. A week after the storm walloped the Northeast, 1.4 million customers remained in the dark, mostly in New York and New Jersey. Getting the power back on for all of them will take at least another week.

Frustration is turning to anger and despair. The air in the region has a winter chill and another storm is approaching. Some without power see neighbors with twinkling chandeliers even as they still use candles.

Fox gets it. He has been taking cold showers and using a flashlight to shave every morning before setting out from his house in Westfield, N.J., to the substations that need repair. On Sunday, his neighbors started an email exchange suggesting they complain to PSE&G in hopes of getting service back quicker.

"I had to head them off at the pass, and explain why it can take so long," he said. "Every day people get a little more strained and stressed. I'd be losing patience too if I had time to."

Local workers have plenty of help: Utility crews from as far away as the West Coast started streaming toward the Northeast in their bucket trucks even before the storm hit. PSE&G said it is using 4,000 out-of-state workers to erect at least 1,000 new poles in its service territory.

For the workers on loan to PSE&G, the day starts at 6 a.m. when busses take them from their hotels to staging areas like the one in the gigantic parking lot at the Garden State Plaza, in Paramus, N.J.

The staging area was set up with the help of 10 logistics experts from Florida Power & Light who know a thing or two about hurricanes. It operates like a giant outdoor assembly line. Workers climb into 800 trucks parked at the site that have been fueled overnight with tanker trucks brought in from Pennsylvania. They pick up their instructions and a PSE&G worker called a "bird dog" that knows the service territory.

They proceed in two columns past pallets stacked with parts and equipment and pick up what they need for the day -- wire, insulators, brackets -- and bagged lunches. Then they head off for 16 hours of line work.

(Continued on page 2)

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