Independence Power & Light has sent employees many times to help restore power in places far from home, including Orlando, Florida, this year after Hurricane Irma.
But a 10-man IPL crew took an unprecedented excursion shortly after Thanksgiving, through Christmas and New Year's until they returned Jan. 5. That same day, a second 10-man crew arrived to take over and stay about a month.
Their destination: the U.S. Virgin Islands island of St. Croix, which was devastated by back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria in September. The first crew left Nov. 25, two days after Thanksgiving. IPL Acting Director Andy Boatright said the second crew could be leaving St. Croix Feb. 8 to come back to Independence.
“We do observe these things,” Boatright said of the hurricanes, “and the city has participated in mutual aid to the lower 48 states for years. This one was different.”
After the second hurricane hit, Boatright said, there was no communication initially from the Virgin Islands, which are roughly 100 miles or less east of Puerto Rico. When word did reach the mainland about the devastation, the need for mutual aid became obvious.
Boatright said the American Public Power Association had a board meeting at St. Croix a few years earlier, adding a bit of sentiment.
Boatright said the city had to receive three guarantees before committing a group of its power company employees – safety of the crews, safety of the vehicles and other equipment and full reimbursement.
The crew – supervisor Jeff Barnett, linesmen Tom Burr, Brian Clardy, Eric Green, Jeremy Kirchhoff, Sid Matthews, Dan Myers, Dustin Sweat and Tim Ward and mechanic Charlie Mohan – was selected based on the rolling out-of-town list.
“It was clear we were going to miss Christmas, but we knew it was a chance we were never going to have again,” Ward said.
Clardy pointed out that their families are used to long/odd hours or out-of-town work trips, but St. Croix was a whole different level.
“Definitely a much bigger commitment,” Myers said, “and (us) not knowing if we were going to be able to communicate back home.”
As it turned out, the men were able to call back home almost nightly. They were housed on a cruise ship chartered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – “They had the fun stuff shut down,” Clardy said jokingly – and were back on the ship each evening after having left at 5 a.m.
The work was unlike anything they will encounter in Eastern Jackson County. In addition to the wind damage from two hurricanes, the Virgin Islands doesn't have a tree maintenance program to prevent some downed power lines, and in arriving two months after the storms they encountered vegetation growing over many poles and wires.
“Irma clipped them a little, but Maria was a direct hit,” Barnett said. “We get 60 to 80 mph winds here and it's a big problem, and they had winds up to 200.”
“When we got there, we didn't even know where to start,” Ward said. “There wasn't a single pole we came across that we didn't have to work on. We pulled metal roofs off from around wires.”
Barnett said the electric workers could salvage some materials, and the island had some leftover from the post-Hurricane Hugo rebuild in 1989. Electric workers, more than 500 of them, came from about every state.
Some people had been without power even before the storms, Barnett said, including one who said he had gone without for nine months. The citizens' gratitude always showed, the IPL workers said, and many times they cooked lunch for the workers. Often, workers knew they had achieved success simply by the locals' reactions.
“(The guys) didn't have to check to see if the lights were on,” Barnett said. “They came out yelling and that let us know.”
Clardy said the men were able to enjoy Christmas somewhat after installing a series of transformers. The residents cooked lunch, and they had a beer with a bunch.
IPL crew members said that gratefulness was their biggest takeaway from St. Croix – that and an appreciation for always having the necessary supplies and reliable power back home.
“I'd like to thank the city for sending us,” Barnett said. “For them it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
When they got to the airport to head home, they waved to the second IPL crew just arriving. That crew is comprised of supervisor Rick Roth, linesmen Trevor Buford, Ben Casey, Dustin Dorn, Luke Hill, Troy Jarvis, Tom Jones, Robert Moody and Robby Salsman and mechanic James Springer.
“We were nice and tan,” Clardy said with a smile, “and they were white as can be.”