Power conductors

Power conductors

May 7th, 2011 by Chris Carroll in News

It's 6 a.m. and a burly crew files through the EPB breakfast line.

Bacon, muffins, tubs of gravy. Coffee.

"Happy Friday!" a handmade sign says. "Yeehaw!! We did it. Thanks again for gettin' done."

The sign's a little misleading. It takes a glance at a lineman's scruffy, sleep-deprived face to understand why.

Good: He and his co-workers restored power to nearly 119,000 homes and businesses since the April 27 storms.

Bad: About 650 places remain dark, nine days after 1,500 workers began The Great Cleanup.

It's simple, really.

"We're here to get the lights back on," says David Handley, a 50-year-old EPB lineman.

Two days earlier, as the bad number hung at 7,500, EPB Construction Manager Greg Phillips stood at the beginning of a problem.

High above a Hixson side street, a tree strangled a once-sturdy pole responsible for providing power to several subdivisions off Ely Road.

Linemen want to get their hands dirty, Phillips said, even when they're relegated to "bird-dogging" - guiding out-of-town contractors from 18 states, supervising electrical work, keeping everybody safe.

That's what made this particular storm so frustrating, Phillips said. Linemen can't get to branch-blocked power lines, especially with "widow makers" - unstable branches - hanging over their heads.

The delays led to plywood signs, according to Phillips: "Where are you, EPB?"

If linemen are the Atlanta Braves, tree removal teams are the grounds crew.

"We can't play without them," Phillips said. "They get us in there."

Most linemen figure people know about their 16- and 24-hour shifts. They're not so sure the official, weeklong breakfast-room count of 200 gallons of coffee would raise many eyebrows.

But they don't think the public is educated on other details: sleeping in trucks, missing "the little local girl" on "American Idol," negotiating fences, avoiding poison ivy, tripping over debris ... and spoiled chicken.

"Power goes out, people throw their trash away," Phillips said. "We smell it."

None of it amounted to a big deal, Phillips said, because the area needed their bucket-truck expertise. He sidled up to Kenny Pearrell, a 40-year-old contractor from Columbus, Ohio, who nodded in agreement.

Pearrell's seen other storms, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"Katrina was bad," he said. "This ranks right up there with it."

EPB linemen make $60,000 to $70,000 a year, according to salary records. The risk justifies the pay, several said.

On Monday, authorities transported a 32-year-old contractor from Middle Tennessee to Vanderbilt University's burn unit after he touched an energized wire in a tree.

Brian Sarrett, vice president of the Kentucky-based Davis H. Elliot Co. Inc., the company that employed the injured man, said the accident had "unusual circumstances," but declined to elaborate.

The man is expected to make a full recovery and return to work after he gets "graft work" on his fingers, Sarrett said.

Handley, a 10-year EPB veteran and Signal Mountain resident, said safety's always a concern, but this week "you do what you have to do."

He had no idea how many overtime hours he's racked up since beginning work on the estimated $12 million to $15 million power restoration. But he was well aware that he was tired.

"We all realize what the job could do to us," he said. "But when you've been going by a dark place at night and you go by and the lights snap on? You get satisfaction out of that."

Later that day, the "bad" news got better: Fewer than 50 customers remained without power as of Friday evening.