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Storm troopers: Yuma linemen help rewire New York
When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast in late October, it left millions of people without power.
On the West Coast, utility workers volunteered to help restore power to those dark neighborhoods. Among them were two Arizona Public Service linemen from Yuma.
When the opportunity came, with only a few hours' notice, Cesar Gutierrez and Richard Ruiz offered to go.
“Everybody knew what was going on. Everyone was talking about it,” Gutierrez said. “We were watching the news. Millions of people had their power out, and it kept going for days. Here people can't be without power for more than two days. I wanted to go help.”
Ruiz noted that a lot of APS workers were willing to go and felt privileged for the opportunity to help.
Gutierrez and Ruiz, both married with children, were part of a contingent of 36 APS and Salt River Project workers from Arizona, along with 17 trucks, who flew to Long Island, N.Y., at the end of October.
They returned shortly before Thanksgiving after working for more than two weeks to restore power in the storm's aftermath.
The workers arrived to find thousands of homes damaged by floodwaters and downed trees. In a region they worked, Port Jefferson, N.Y., the water had risen up to 12 feet. But most of the damage they saw was from the strong wings.
“There were trees and limbs everywhere, humongous 150-feet (wide) trees that toppled over, snapped like twigs, that landed on houses and on top of each other, leaving huge holes where the roots and grass had been,” Ruiz said.
Some residents had already had their homes rewired and were ready to have power restored when the second storm came, ripping off the new wiring. They had to do it all over again.
Restoring power to some areas was like starting from scratch. With thousands of poles down and wires on the ground, they had to install new poles, hang new transformers, dig holes by hand and rewire whole circuits. They would start and finish in the dark.
Both Yumans had never worked in the snow and in 16-degree weather. They had to buy warm clothing, including thermal underwear, socks and gloves.
“Some days there was quite a bit of snow. It was a lot of work, it was fun, it was different,” Gutierrez said.
Faced with different weather, different circumstances and different vegetation, the utility workers had to come up with creative solutions.
“There were a lot of houses destroyed. We couldn't just reattach the old wiring,” Gutierrez noted.
With vegetation so thick, bucket trucks couldn't always be used. The workers had to climb poles, with hooks and spurs, something utility workers don't usually do in Yuma since most poles are steel.
The ground was so saturated with snow and rain, trucks couldn't be used to move the 40-foot poles. They had to figure out how to move the poles and install them without machinery. They ended up cutting poles, lining them up and rolling in the long poles.
Just like back in the old days, Ruiz quipped.
With 15 guys pushing one pole and using ropes, they put on a few shows that people would stop to watch.
Residents were happy to see them in most cases. The few disgruntled residents, mostly upset for being without power for so long, softened up after learning they were from Arizona.
Some residents were understandably upset, since one row of homes might have power while their neighbors, who were on a different circuit, didn't.
“Once they understood we were from out of state, they were appreciative,” Ruiz said.
Homeowners came out with coffee and doughnuts, and some even tried to give them cash.
“We respectfully declined,” Gutierrez said.
One woman and her elderly mother had been without power for 14 days. Somehow she had been skipped. When she saw the workers, she came out “bawling,” Gutierrez said. They had her power restored in 15 minutes.
“She wanted to open her house to us, give us water, give us food,” he said.
The Yuma workers were fortunate to stay in hotels. Some of their fellow workers slept in tents or FEMA containers turned into barracks. Gutierrez and Ruiz had been prepared to camp out.
“We were geared up to tent up,” Ruiz noted.
Yuma's APS spokeswoman Andrea Bereznak expressed appreciation to Gutierrez and Ruiz. “We're proud of the guys for being willing to go, and on such short notice.”
Bereznak noted that workers with specialized skills were needed, and not just anybody could have done the job.
“It was gratifying for me to go, not for the pay, but because these people needed power,” Ruiz said.
“It was good to help,” Gutierrez reiterated.
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6856. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSMaraKnaub or on Twitter at @YSMaraKnaub.