By David Kligman
SACRAMENTO — More than 150 PG&E electric workers flew to New York today (Oct. 30) to help restore power to millions of people impacted by the devastating Hurricane Sandy.
It was believed to be PG&E’s biggest effort ever to aid a fellow utility.
As they gathered in a hotel ballroom for a pre-trip safety and logistics meeting, some of the electric workers were nervous. Others said it was just part of the job. And still more acknowledged that it was a proud moment for them to represent PG&E and bring power back to Americans in need.
Most said they found out they were selected for the unique assignment Sunday night while watching the San Francisco Giants clinch the World Series title. The employees come from across PG&E’s entire service area — from Bakersfield to Eureka.
“I got a call from my foreman, who told me to pack a bag for two weeks,” said Placerville lineman Charles Robbins. “It seems like a whole lot of work, but I don’t know what to expect. There’s so much damage.”
A mutual-assistance network
As with other disasters through the years, PG&E offered its help once the severity of the storm became clear. By early this morning, according to media reports, more than 8 million customers were without power along the East Coast.
PG&E is working with Con Edison, which provides power to most of New York City and Westchester County. The utility said about 800,000 of its customers were without power and that those served by underground power will have it back in four days. Restoration for those served by overhead lines will take at least a week.
The PG&E employees spent most of the day at a Sacramento hotel. They packed into the hotel’s ballroom and received a “tailboard”— a group meeting with safety instructions, logistics, a message from IBEW Local 1245 and a question-and-answer session.
Scott Rose, a PG&E director of general construction, emphasized to the crews that they’ll follow the same safety protocols that they use every day.
“It doesn’t change because we change our location,” he said. “Our safety priority will not be impacted because we get on a plane and land in a different state.”
Suitcases and hard hats
Throughout the hotel lobby, packed bags were topped with hard hats. Employees were told to pack no more than a 50-pound bag. Vallejo line worker Marvin Liderus said he packed enough clothes so he won’t have to do laundry, including company-issued rain gear, fire-resistant jackets, sweaters and clothes. And of course he made sure to bring his cell phone, charger and even a portable charger.
Two buses then transported them to nearby Mather Regional Airport where a chartered 737 flew them to Westchester, N.Y. Every seat was filled.
Meanwhile, four PG&E bucket trucks and one line truck had already left the company’s service center in Davis and were heading east. The large trucks, driven by utility mechanics, left overnight Monday and several flatbeds loaded with the smaller trucks and trailers filled with gear and supplies departed today. Con Edison will provide the poles, wire and other materials.
Among the PG&E workers are underground and overhead maintenance and construction employees, damage-assessment personnel and electric first responders who will act as troubleshooters to determine the cause of an outage and how to best restore power. Also traveling to New York are four electric field safety specialists, including Bill Jennings of Antioch.
“There’s a height of excitement and sometimes safety slides to the back burner,” he said. “My job is to put it at the front burner. It almost always boils down to one rule: If it’s not grounded, it’s not dead.”
‘Bring them home safe’
The ultimate goal is safety, said Jim Kane, Jennings’ colleague who works out of Angels Camp.
“We’re out there to bring them home safe,” Kane said.
Though electric line workers often leave for jobs weeks at a time, especially during winter months, this was a unique situation given what they’ll encounter is unknown. Families of PG&E workers are supportive, but it remains difficult for some of them.
Richard Turk, an equipment operator from Roseville, said his wife understood but not his 13-year-old daughter Amber.
“I was packing and my suitcase was on the floor,” Turk said. “I looked up and she had climbed into it and was trying to zip it up.”
Some of the employees have never been to New York before. Others have family there who are without power. When asked what it would be like to restore power to his wife’s family, who lives in Queens, Davis lineman Anthony Vasconez said: “That would be pretty amazing. Maybe we could get an Italian meal out of it if we were in the neighborhood.”
Vasconez then showed a text he received from his wife Colleen.
“I’m proud of you sweetie. Be safe and I’ll miss you!!!”
Then she was off to take their 3-year-old son to preschool.
Email David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.