Thursday morning the sun dazzled on the snow and ice-covered ridge topping Barton Lane close to Pt. Pleasant Christian Church.
The serenity of a devastatingly beautiful winter scene was only disturbed by animal tracks criss-crossing the ice and generators humming outside the scattered houses. An open charcoal grill outside a shed playfully labeled the Pitts was, possibly, that family’s only means of cooking supper since the power went out in the early morning hours of Jan. 28.
After a week of frustration from having no power, it appeared Feb. 5 was going to be their lucky day.
Several Shelby Energy Cooperative and Elliot Co. private contractor trucks stood in line at the base of Barton Lane awaiting the all clear from crew members. SEC spokeswoman Theresa Atha said 35 workers from the Lexington firm were contracted to augment SEC’s workforce.
The process of restoring power in rural areas can be tedious.
On Barton Lane, workers were sent ahead like scouts to ensure the crew’s safety before working on downed power lines and poles. Workers waiting below kept busy by changing the oil in their fleet of trucks from the back of a specially outfitted mechanical truck. “We just do oil changes wherever they’re stopped,” a worker said.
Atha explained that the scouts have to make sure downed lines are not energized and generators being used by powerless residents are not feeding back through the live wires.
There is a catch-22 though. “The thing is when they go back up the road to ground wires,” she said, “it will cut off other people while they make repairs.”
Atha said the good news Thursday morning was SEC had whittled the number down to 250 members without power from a storm peak of 7,500. “Right at half of our customers were down,” she said. Lineman Wally Shouse of Pleasureville said he has worked for SEC more than 40 years. When asked if this was the worst power outage he has had to work through, he said yes.
SEC has served the area since 1937. It was founded in 1937 and serves ten counties, mostly in rural areas. Shelby has the highest concentration of customers, close to 7,000. Henry County has the second highest number of SEC users at a little more than 4,000.
So, Atha said when two of SEC’s 13 substations, New Castle in Henry County and Clay Village in Shelby County, went down in this storm they caused a bulk of the outages.
“They’re all tied in,” she said. “We have over 2,000 miles of service line.”
Atha said crews have worked 18-hour-overlapping shifts so that round-the-clock coverage has been the standard. Administrative staff has performed dispatch duties in two shifts, covering 24 hours a day to keep those crews rolling. “We don’t know how many more days it will be,” Shouse said.
“I’ve been tired, but nothing like these guys out working in the field,” she said.
Atha said she even offered to launder the contractors’ dirty clothes. The contractors stayed at nearby motels and got very little rest. She said the workers brought only one week’s worth of clothing not knowing they would end up staying more than ten days.
The first days were the worst. “It was raining and sleeting,” Atha said. “They’d come in wet, change and go back out.” Finally, Atha asked the workers to bring their sodden clothes in trash bags to the office. Staff dropped them off at the laundromat and returned them clean and dry to the workers.
On Thursday, Atha said, crews were concentrating on downed poles. The crew on Barton Lane’s had a tough job ahead of them. “We’ve got two poles broken off up those hills,” she said. They would need a bulldozer to reach the affected area, and removing the existing poles would be a challenge. “Sometimes they have to put the new pole up right next to the old one,” Atha said. “On hillsides where there are several poles, they have to be put in with heavy equipment.” She said some property owners have even helped pull SEC equipment through their fields to get to the most remote areas.
Atha said all in all SEC crews have been met with kindness and understanding even though customers have had enough of the power outages. “They’ve brought the crews food and hot coffee, even a big pizza,” she said, “and we’ve received thank-you cards.”
On Thursday, Atha said it’s been rewarding to see the numbers of people without power diminish. “We have a map in the office with all the outages marked,” she said. “It’s almost cleaned off now.”
“We’re down to 250 and we’re grateful,” she said, “but nobody wants to be the last one.”
As of Monday morning, SEC reported that power to all residential customers in Henry County had been restored, though some barns with power were still in the dark.
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