A convoy of 43 powerline workers and 26 trucks from Abbotsford and other B.C. communities have been on Long Island, New York over the past three weeks, restoring power to some of the half a million people left in the dark and cold in the storm-ravaged region.
Ted Pennell, a project manager for Valley Power Line Contracting in Surrey and an Abbotsford resident, 13 colleagues, and crews from four other companies were recruited by a power company on the east coast to meet the demand. At the peak of the work, there were 9,000 linemen restoring power to the region.
Despite long hours and bunking in tractor trailers with 35 other men, "it's been a great experience," said Pennell in a phone interview last week.
"For the amount of things [the residents] have gone through, we didn't know what to expect, but they've been nothing but super-friendly."
Sub-tropical storm Sandy smashed into 24 states on the eastern seaboard on Oct. 29, bringing high winds and a storm surge that devastated hundreds of small towns, while even iconic streets and subways in central New York City turned into disaster zones.
As the hurricane withdrew, the call went out across North America for skilled line workers.
More than 500,000 people were then without power in the New York/New Jersey area, and local power companies in the region didn't have enough skilled people or equipment to do repairs in a timely fashion.
Pennell's company, which often responds to storm blackouts in Washington State, got a request from National Grid Ltd. to send crews and equipment.
The B.C. convoy, with bucket trucks, pickups and tools, left the Pacific Border Crossing at 1 a.m. on Nov. 3 and drove 4,800 kilometres non-stop from the Fraser Valley to the U.S. east coast.
They mustered in Hartford, Conn., to wait out a second storm that brought snow to the region.
Valley Power's destination was Long Island, east of New York City, where more than 200,000 homes in small towns such as Hicksville, Seaford, Massapequa and Bellmore remained without power.
However, when they arrived, they found their bucket trucks couldn't be used since most power lines ran through backyards, which were littered with fallen trees and storm debris.
Several houses along the beach were even lifted off their foundations, Pennell said.
"It meant all the work had to be done by hand. We had to carry the poles into the backyards and pretty much had to climb all the poles," he said.
Work crews could be seen on every street, working 16-hour shifts.
They ate and showered in FEMA disaster tents and slept in a row of 50 tractor trailers, with 36 men in each.
By mid-week, only 20,000 homes left without power.
Still, even with the grinding work schedule, "it's been nice working conditions for the boys, it was 16 C," Pennell said, and it was great to meet powerline workers from around North America.
The technical challenge was also exciting.
In B.C. line workers handle high voltage wires with safety 'hot sticks,' whereas in New York, they were required to wear rubber gloves and sleeves.
"Linemen are a different breed - we knew what we were getting into," said Pennell, a Newfoundlander whose dad and brother are also linemen.
"We're the only ones who get excited when the power goes out."