Hundreds of lineworkers work to restore power in county
MIDDLEBURY — Monday night, the parking lot outside of the Fire and Ice restaurant in Middlebury was full. In front of the eatery, Seymour Street was lined bumper-to-bumper with at least 10 large trucks, many with engines running, from Asplundh Tree Expert Co., Green Mountain Power, Northline Utilities and others.
A sign outside the front door read: “Welcome and thank you, utilities workers!”
Inside the eclectically decorated restaurant, dozens of men in work pants, sweatshirts and heavy boots sat tired-faced at tables or helped themselves to the restaurant’s buffet, which was laid out in an old wooden speedboat.
Connor Murphy, Jay Jorgensen and Eric Boyer are lineworkers from Northline Utilities, based in Au Sable Forks, N.Y. After last week’s storm, they worked overtime repairing lines in Plattsburgh, N.Y. On Saturday, they came to Vermont to assist in restoring power to parts of Addison County that were still without electricity. Monday was their fifth day working 17-hour shifts.
“There was a ton of snow, a lot of grounding and lot of downed trees,” Jorgensen said of the conditions. “A lot more snow then we were used to.”
During the seven hours between work shifts, the trio had been sleeping at the Brandon Motor Lodge. In their work, they said it’s normal to travel to another location, work for long hours and then spend the night in local accommodations.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” said Murphy, who has worked for Northline for one and a half years.
In 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit parts of New York, when they weren’t working to clean up from the second costliest storm in U.S. history, they were bunking in empty tractor-trailer trucks.
The combination of snow, sleet and freezing rain last week brought a maelstrom of downed trees and power outages to Addison County’s 23 towns, prompting school cancelations and impeding travel. In the Green Mountain Power district that includes Addison County and part of northern Rutland County, the electric company received some 14,644 reports of power outages.
“Your area was one of the hardest hit,” GMP spokeswoman Kristin Carlson said. “We had over 300 crews in the Middlebury district.”
The storm prompted a statewide response larger than that for the ice storm of 1998 or Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Crews on the road numbered more than 1,000 strong at the peak and worked around the clock and through the weekend restoring power, clearing trees and making repairs to infrastructure. By Monday afternoon, GMP had restored power to more than 130,000 customers who were without electricity in some cases for five or six days.
While 165 of the workers are from Vermont, the remainder are from out of state. The regional draw of workers from other states is part of what Carlson describes as a “regional support system.” Green Mountain Power has sent workers to help out in other states when needed there. This November, when a pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm knocked out power to 200,000 in New Hampshire, GMP sent 30 crews.
“You can never have enough line workers to respond to something like that,” said GMP’s Carlson. “That’s why we help each other.”
And while they were due to continue operating in Addison County and the Champlain Valley through late this week, much of their food and lodging is local.
“The storms boost local businesses quite a bit,” Carlson said. “We’ve been hearing from very appreciative restaurants and hotels.”
When crews are working through the night after major weather events, Green Mountain Power will hold rooms at local hotels or inns including the Middlebury Inn, the Marriott Courtyard, the Swift House Inn and the Waybury Inn.
At the Middlebury Inn, General Manager Geoff Conrad says the hotel put up 30 to 40 workers every night from this past Thursday through Monday — many from Green Mountain Power as well as Asplundh Tree Services, which has its headquarters in Pennsylvania.
Conrad said the guests were noticeably low-maintenance; coming in late and leaving early.
“They don’t even stick around for breakfast so it’s pretty easy business for us,” he said.
In addition to corporate rates of 15 percent off of this season’s rates, the Middlebury Inn also gave an extra $10 off per night.
“In the hotel business, it can go either way. Sometimes a snowstorm hits us at the wrong time and we’ll lose a lot of business but something like this definitely helps our business, which is nice because this isn’t the busiest time of year for us,” he said.
However, Conrad said he hoped the occupancy wouldn’t extend into busier weekends, when the inn starts to see more skier traffic.
SHORT HOTEL STAYS
Joe Sutton, owner of the Waybury Inn in East Middlebury, said approximately 35 workers stayed at his hotel, sleeping in 10 rooms at different times of day. Because of the hours, the owners didn’t see much of their guests.
“They didn’t arrive until typically after midnight and were gone sometimes by 4 in the morning,” he said. “So we didn’t get to know them very well.”
In the past, Sutton said the inn has received reservations for utilities workers doing local repairs, but nothing like the influx of traffic seen after last week’s storms brought 16 inches of snow to their neighborhood.
“Occasionally, one or two rooms were used,” he said. “This is the first time in the 15 years that we’ve been here that we’ve had this kind of demand for rooms after a storm.”
The workers took out the rooms that Sutton said would have likely gone un-rented at this time of year.
“It’s certainly a bonus having the crews in town needing our service,” he said.
Workers are also getting a portion of their meals from local restaurants including Fire and Ice, Mister Up’s and Rosie’s Restaurant.
Rosie’s on Route 7 South in Middlebury started serving an early breakfast to workers on Wednesday of last week. Manager Steph Rule said the number of diners steadily increased every morning from 85 on the first morning to 250 on Monday, helping themselves to a buffet of pancakes, waffles, muffins, fruit and plenty of coffee before heading out for a full day of clearing fallen trees and resetting lines.
On Sunday night in Middlebury, as many as two dozen bucket trucks at a time lined Seymour Street as 200 workers ate at Fire and Ice. Crews filed through the restaurant, eating in groups before heading out again.
“I never really know what to expect,” Paris Rinder-Goddard, owner of Fire and Ice, said earlier on Monday night, while gearing up the restaurant for a big crowd. “They don’t know if they’ll get the power up and get off the mountain in time for dinner.”
Fire and Ice started keeping its doors open late last Thursday. Rinder-Goddard said the restaurant after that saw crews from Nova Scotia, Maine and even Washington state arriving as late as 8 or even 10 p.m.
LOCALS AND CANADIANS
The late-night traffic has seen plenty of local workers as well. At 23, Logan Smith from Salisbury, has been on the job with Green Mountain Power for two months and is, in his own words, “brand new” to the job. On his first large weather event, Smith worked in Lincoln, an area that received over 19 inches of snow in some places. The cleanup, he said, was anything but easy.
“We get through a day and have to start over at the same spot the next morning because the trees would break behind us,” he said.
Despite the conditions and number of crews involved, Smith said the process was organized and efficient. In Lincoln, Smith worked alongside crews from New Brunswick, Canada.
“It went with minimal confusion, even with them being from out of another country,” he said. “They were very good at what they did. I was happy to see how everything was handled. There was minimal confusion and everything was done timely.”
As an added bonus, he was able to go home to his own bed in Salisbury at the end of a shift.
“It was definitely nice to work in my own district and not have to worry about that every night,” he said.
As ice and snow continued to fall from trees early this week, new power outages were being reported. GMP’s Carlson said she expected some line crews to stay in the Middlebury area until Thursday.
But on Monday evening, Northline’s Murphy, Jorgensen and Boyer found out their work in Addison County was officially over. All three had families in New York they would return to. Jim Radley, another worker from Northline Utilities, celebrated his 45th wedding anniversary last week while helping in Addison County.
Northline’s Connor Murphy said he was glad to be going home.
“It’s a relief that everything’s back on,” he said. “But it’s always nice to make a little extra money.”
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