Electricity is no longer a luxury but a necessity. And after Hurricane Sandy swept across the eastern seaboard in late October, 9.5 million people were left without it — some for weeks.
With the amount of work needed to be done to get people back on the grid, electrical companies out east couldn’t keep pace, so they called for backup. One of the men answering that call was Todd Graves of La Crescent, a 23-year employee of Xcel Energy.
Graves and his crew spent 17 days — long days — working in wind-ravaged areas from remote locations in West Virginia to neighborhoods in New York. They helped restore power to homes and order to lives for thousands affected by the storm.
Media reports emphasized the loss of power — and the ensuing hardship — in places like New York City, and seeing situations like this before, Graves knew his office could be called into action at any point. Though Twin Cities area crews typically are the first to be called to scenes of a disaster simply because of their larger numbers, at 4 p.m. on Oct. 30, Graves, an Xcel district representative in the Winona office, was asked if he’d be willing to go. He agreed, and less than 12 hours later, he was on the road.
“I kind of figured there would be a group from Xcel, but whether or not I was asked to go, it has to go through a lot of people before it gets to me,” he said. “I’m on the bottom of list of who gets to go out of town.”
But no one who’s asked is forced to go, Graves said. It’s strictly on a volunteer basis. Knowing he’d be working 16- or 17-hour days, which would amount to good overtime money, he decided to go, not only for that little windfall, but also because he enjoys it.
“It’s something different,” said Graves, who also has traveled to Missouri, South Dakota and New Hampshire for similar reasons. “I’ve been going to La Crescent job for the past 12 years, so when you get a chance to go out and play with everybody else, it’s fun. It’s what I enjoy doing, going out and fixing things.”
After meeting up with other Xcel workers and a brief safety training and press briefing in Newport, Minn., the crew traveled to Indianapolis, and then on to their first stop in West Virginia, working in the cities of Charleston, Logan and Oak Hill for six days. Xcel has a mutual aid agreement with the state’s Appalachian Power and Light, which is how the crew was first placed there, Graves said.
When those jobs were done, they stopped to work in Lebanon, Pa., before heading to Long Island, N.Y.
“We worked on Long Island, so we went over the Brooklyn Bridge and dropped into New York City and drove through Manhattan out onto Long Island,” Graves said. “There were 26 trucks in the convoy” and he was one of 7,000 linemen. Normally, 200 maintain the system there, he said.
As Graves and his crew moved from site to site, most of what he saw was damage related to wind, rather than the more highly publicized flooding. In many cases, large trees blown over downed power lines, which resulted in widespread outages.
“What we had was high winds,” he said. “Talking to some of the people out there who stayed in their houses, they had 80 to 90 mph winds. … We never really saw any flood damage.”
For Graves, the days were long. He’d typically get to his truck by 6 a.m. and report to a staging area, where his crew was told where it’d be going for the day. Once they got to the scene, the work wasn’t unlike what he’s accustomed to doing on a daily basis. Make the scene safe for the crew, fix the problem and move on to the next spot. The main problem he ran into was the differences in wire between what’s used in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
Despite those slowdowns, whether it was a house service, primary wires, the transformers or poles that were damaged, after Graves’ crew left, entire neighborhoods were once again powered up. Then they moved on to the next site, getting as far as they could before quitting time at 10 p.m.
But throughout the days, there were times when Graves got a chance to talk a little with the people whose power he was helping to restore.
“In New York, everybody says how mean and nasty they are, but everybody we ran into was very kind to us,” he said. “The people weren’t happy with the power company there, but they were thrilled with us.”
They were offered the use of restrooms, bottles of water or anything they might need to make the job easier. Graves said he appreciated that gesture and felt good knowing he was helping to provide something — electricity — that’s no longer just a nicety but a need.
By the time Graves and his crew left, about 99 percent of work in those areas was done, with the remaining to be finished by the local company. He was happy with his effort, knowing he was providing an essential service.
“It makes you feel good that you’re doing something that people really need and makes life convenient,” he said.