published Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Working 23 hours a day to get power back


by Chris Carroll
Cindy Panter, an EPB contractor, drives a forklift.
Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Cindy Panter, an EPB contractor, drives a forklift. Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Last week, the restroom inside EPB’s transformer shop was fully operational — stalls, sinks and smells intact.

Didn’t matter. Each day, Cindy Panter scribbled “Out of Order” on a new sheet of paper, tacked it to the door, curled into the fetal position and slept on a ratty couch crammed inside.

“That was my bed for an hour a day,” Panter said.

For the other 23, she worked. Sunk her hands in cooling oil. Drove a forklift in reverse. Repaired transformers — linchpins of the power line — and ultimately inspired her foreman to wonder, “Cindy, what’s it gonna take to get you home?”

She logged more than 160 overtime hours as a transformer expert contracted by EPB, one among 1,500 workers devoted to replacing more than 600 utility poles warped by the wicked weather.

“It’s not going to last forever,” the 42-year-old said. “But it’s adrenaline. This has to be done.”

On average, one transformer transfers electricity to three homes so cellphones, computers, televisions and microwaves are no longer useless for those without power.

On April 27, severe storms ripped power from more than 119,000 homes and businesses supplied by EPB. Nine days later, darkness hung over 540.

“You’re the hero or the goat,” Panter said. “You want the linemen to get their transformers, go out and get the power on for the people.”

Not without a price. A married mother of two boys, she missed her 18-year-old’s final home baseball game at Chattanooga Central High School. She has “no idea what’s in the refrigerator” back home and asked what day it was three times in an hour.

But she loves her job. As she talked about it, her face glowed with the dazed focus of a college kid finishing an all-nighter. She vowed to continue until every light snaps on.

Gazing across a floor crowded with torn metal and power tools, Panter asked only that people “be patient. We’re doing all we can do.”

She wants her bed and the overtime paycheck, which will help a woman raising “two boys with four-wheel-drive trucks.”

And there might be some left over.

“I’ll be too tired to spend it,” she laughed.

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