Dominion Linemen Risk Danger To Restore Power

fromWAMU

Hurricane Irene left millions of people up and down the East Coast without electricity. Power companies say it could be a week before service is restored everywhere. At Dominion Power in Virginia, repair teams are working 16 hour shifts.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

Good morning. Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan and Im David Greene.

This would be about the time when, for some people, Hurricane Irene is getting really annoying. The storm is gone, but many people in the northeast are still waiting for floodwaters to go down.

INSKEEP: In fact, some rivers are still rising, forcing more evacuations. In Vermont, residents of a number of towns were thrown back to the age before the automobile. Roads were washed out, leaving residents stranded.

GREENE: Then are people whove temporarily gone back to the age before electricity. More than two million people are still without power on the East Coast.

INSKEEP: Restoring power is a time consuming, dangerous job that could take more days to complete.

GREENE: Reporter Sabri Ben-Achour, from member station WAMU, followed a power line repair crew.

SABRI BEN-ACHOUR: Imagine a Cirque du Soleil performer balancing a 35 foot long pole in his hands. Imagine him on the ground, using the pole to do something like writing an autograph 40 feet up in the air. Now replace the performer with a scruffy guy in a hard hat and a fluorescent yellow jacket, add torrential rain and 20,000 volts of electricity to the equation.

KENNY WILKINS (Construction Manager, Dominion Power): Sometimes when the rain is howling and the wind's blowing, it gets extremely difficult because that stick will bow. But the guys are very, very good at it. They can do pretty much anything with those, from the ground.

BEN-ACHOUR: Kenny Wilkins is a construction manager with Dominion Power in Virginia. He's standing on a busy street in Alexandria, Virginia, and hes watching a crew unhook red warning flags from a power line that just went live.

A few feet away, a destroyed transformer gets loaded into a truck. It looks like a giant tin can, and has long spirally things sticking out of it.

Wilkins explains.

WILKINS: During a storm, with something like this, there's usually two main causes. It's the trees falling into it or just the ground gets so saturated that things just fall over.

BEN-ACHOUR: About five million people lost power on the East Coast. Nearly a million of them were in Virginia. And Wilkins says, for some of them, it'll be a full week before his crews can get to them. Thats even though they're working 16-hour shifts. There is some good news for this neighborhood, though.

WILKINS: We didnt have to replace any of these poles. That takes much longer. To replace a pole, may be eight hours. To replace a cross arm, might be, you know, three or four hours.

BEN-ACHOUR: There are 5,000 people working in just Northern Virginia. Dominion, like a lot of utilities, has agreements where they get help from other utilities. But it's still a big job.

WILKINS: Weve mobilized a huge force. I know we've got people from Alabama, Ohio, from all across the East coast, on our system, working currently. Theres only a limited number of people that can actually do this type of work.

BEN-ACHOUR: And that means prioritizing. So theres a reason your brother on the other side of town got power and you didnt.

WILKINS: You know, it's where we can get the most bang for the buck, to get the most customers on quicker, safer, faster. For instance, a hospital - if you live next door to a hospital, chances are as soon as the storm stops blowing, your electricitys coming on. If it's just the wire thats coming from the pole to your house, and youre the only person on your whole block thats out -chances are youre one of the last ones thats going to be put on.

BEN-ACHOUR: But Wilkins says, basically, its a really dangerous job and safety takes time. Restoring power isnt just fixing the telephone pole. Its clearing the road to get to it, then figuring out where to cut the power leading to it, so nobody gets electrocuted; grounding those lines to be sure nobody gets electrocuted; putting up signs so nobody makes a deadly mistake; and then fixing the telephone pole.

For NPR News, Im Sabri Ben-Achour.

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