Utilities rely on out-of-state workers after storm

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By BEN NUCKOLS, Associated Press

LEESBURG, Va. (AP) — A fleet of 20 electrical utility trucks, with cranes capable of hoisting a line worker 55 feet above the ground, commandeered the parking lot behind a Hampton Inn in the northern Virginia exurbs of Washington early Tuesday morning.

The sight was familiar in the days following a violent thunderstorm with near-hurricane-force winds that knocked out power to millions of people in the Mid-Atlantic region. But residents and hotel guests might have been surprised by the company name on the trucks — Gulf Power, as in the Gulf of Mexico — and the Florida license plates.

On Saturday morning, the day after the storm, Pensacola-based Gulf Power rounded up more than five-dozen employees and told them to pack for up to 2 weeks on the road. It took 2 full days for the convoy of trucks to make the nearly 1,000-mile trek to Leesburg, a town about 40 miles west of the nation's capital that's surrounded by wineries and horse farms.

"It's long and grinding. That's probably the worst part of the whole thing, is trying to get here," said lineman Kirk Allen, 51, who's worked for Gulf Power for 23 years.

Utilities routinely rely on a network of out-of-state workers to pitch in during major outages. Of the 5,400 workers restoring power to Dominion customers in Virginia, 1,800 were from out of state — including crews from as far away as Iowa, Texas and Ontario, Canada. Baltimore Gas & Electric, which serves central Maryland, had 1,300 out-of-state workers supplementing its own 2,000 crew members, and Pepco, which serves Washington and suburban Maryland, had 700 out-of-state workers among its 3,000 field personnel. All three utilities brought in workers from Canada.

Utilities would not disclose how much they are paying for out-of-state workers, but Richmond-based Dominion says they are covering all the expenses associated with bringing crews to the region and reimbursing their employers for the workers' wages and overtime.

Without the assistance from other utilities, restoring power to everyone "would take weeks and weeks, rather than just days and days," said Ed Orenduff, 64, a retired Dominion employee who was called in on a contract basis to coordinate the out-of-state crews.

As he spoke, another supervisor was calling area restaurants and asking whether they could accommodate up to 75 hungry workers. Orenduff advised him not to make a reservation earlier than 8 p.m.

"We need to work 'em till dark," he said.

That's exactly what the out-of-state crews expect. Their 16-hour days follow a familiar routine: a wake-up call at dawn, breakfast and lunch on the road and a sit-down dinner. They collapse in their hotel beds and do it all over again.

"When you get in the bed, you go straight to sleep," Allen said. "The first few days, it's not that bad. You've got a whole lot of adrenaline."

Allen said he's had tougher assignments than working in the Washington area amid sweltering July heat. He cringed at the memory of an ice storm in Mississippi in 2002 that had him on the road for 18 days.

"That was worse. Real slow, real cold," Allen said.

John Parker, 55, a 29-year Gulf Power employee who was supervising a team of workers from the Panama City, Fla., area, said that when out-of-state assignments pop up, there are always more volunteers than available spots. He tries to distribute the work evenly, and workers can usually count on a couple of road trips a year. The overtime pay is nice, but not enough to radically alter anyone's lifestyle, he said.

Allen said he didn't take the out-of-state assignments for the money.

"It's more the satisfaction of getting people's lights back on. Not everybody can do it," he said as his colleagues worked to fix a snapped power line. "These guys working for Dominion right now, they're tired."

As if on cue, a local resident drove by in a pickup truck, lowered his window and yelled, "We appreciate it!"

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