Repair work seems endless

Sun Staff

Life on the front line of the Isabel cleanup isn't easy.

By 10 a.m. yesterday, when the utility trucks and tree trimmers rolled into Prescott Avenue in North Baltimore, Gerald Mason and his eight-man crew had already been on the job six hours straight, tramping through back yards, clearing huge fallen trees, turning off home generators, reassuring anxious homeowners and donning rubber gloves and goggles to scamper up poles and reattach power lines.

And, with hundreds of thousands of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers still begging for power, the grueling routine stretched like infinity before Mason's team and hundreds of other repair crews racing across the Maryland landscape.

"You just keep going and going and going and going, like the Energizer bunny," said Mason, an overhead crew leader for BGE who was hoping to wrap up the workday about 8 p.m. "Then you say you've had enough, and there's always somebody to help you out. The human body and mind can only do so much."

Yesterday, the extra help came in the form of eight utility employees from Vermont, who worked on the lines while Mason supervised, scouted out the next jobs and acted as a guide in unfamiliar territory.

The workers from Central Vermont Public Service of Rutland, Vt., were among the 600 repair crews BGE called in from 27 states and Canada to help restore power to the more than half-million customers left in the dark by Isabel.

"We get tired working 16 or 17 hours," said Gary Sharon, a CVPS line foreman who drove down to Baltimore Saturday evening with 12 trucks, 24 workers and two supervisors.

Sharon and his crew spent 18 hours Sunday working in Dundalk, mainly in back yards, a far cry from the rural woods and mountains of Vermont. But "a mess is happening, and they need help," he said.

With the stench of scorched wood wafting through the air on Prescott Avenue, Mason's team cut and cleared the top of a 70-foot-tall oak tree that had narrowly missed Alexander Jones' white Cape Cod-style house.

Jones, who has lived in the house for 53 years, heard nothing when the tree smashed into his side yard early Friday morning.

Jones discovered the tree when he woke up. "I looked out the front door and saw nothing but leaves," he said. "I was just blessed that the tree missed the house."

He and his neighborhood of about 20 homes along the dead-end street had been without power since the top of the tree fell on electric wires and yanked a utility pole partially out of the ground.

It took Mason's crew about 3 1/2 hours of cautious step-by-step labor to replace the wires and restore power to the homes.

The crew first walked the site to assess damage, then shut off all the power in the area. They also listened for private home generators, which if left running could prove dangerous for workers handling lines that ought to be dead.

"You could be in the woods and not hear a generator and start working on the secondary [line] and get sparks," Mason said. He had discovered one generator running on Prescott Avenue. "We cut the generator off and unplugged it, and told them the electricity would be on within the hour. They loved hearing that."

Next, the tree trimmers came in cut up the fallen tree trunk, stacking piles of logs next to Jones' house.

Finally, the crew re-attached the power lines. They faced one minor setback shortly after turning on the power, when a tree branch apparently fell on a wire insulator, causing the line to spark and the crew members to rush back into Jones' yard.

While the crew worked, Betty Hall, a retired state worker who lives next door to Jones, sat in her darkened living room, eating a late lunch. About 2 p.m., Hall's living room lamp suddenly came on.

"I can't believe it," she said. "Oh, my goodness. How wonderful."

Hall said she had coped with the loss of power by reading and going to bed early: "Sometimes you need to enjoy the stillness" but "I kind of missed my soap operas."

Other customers have been less patient.

"The power has been out for four days where my daughter lives in Timonium," said Edwin Melhorn, 70, who had power at his Mays Chapel home. "I've called BGE's customer service line, but I call them customer non-service. I ask them when they'll restore service and they have no information."

Mason said he tries to put the complaints out of his mind and focus on the job at hand. It's far too dangerous to do otherwise.

He has seen the danger firsthand; only four weeks ago, he was called to the site of an accident where a contractor was killed while doing routine maintenance.

"I got him off the line and lowered his body down," said Mason. "I hope I never have to do it again."

To accept the hazards, "you have to like this work and you've got to like to help people," he said. "I love the unknown. It's the thought of you holding 13,000 volts in your hand with rubber gloves. It's a mind thing."

"In this work, you don't get overconfident," he added.

As of 8 o'clock last night, BGE had restored power to all but about 174,000 of the 650,000 customers who lost service during the storm.

To the south, Pepco had restored power to about two-thirds of its customers who had lost power, leaving about 156,000 still without service at 2 p.m. yesterday.

Just how long it should take the 4,100 utility workers like Mason's crew to complete the BGE cleanup is difficult to assess, experts say.

While customers complain about long waits, each storm presents unique challenges and circumstances.

For example, it took about nine days before power was fully restored in North Carolina after a large ice storm in 2002 disrupted service to almost 2 million homes.

Concerned about the long wait for power, a governor's task force was formed to determine whether companies such as Duke Power, Progress Energy Carolinas and Dominion North Carolina Power had performed as well as they should have. The finding?

"It's very difficult to gauge," said Ben Turner, director of the electric division of the public staff at the North Carolina Utilities Commission. "Each storm is different. The work itself is hard work. It takes a lot of heavy equipment. It's very dangerous work.

"What we found is that the amount of time a utility takes to restore power depends on the condition the earth and the facilities are left in after the storm has passed."

The North Carolina report did advise utilities to have a plan in place that allows personnel to practice for storm response and to communicate with government and communities better about the progress of service restoration.

In Maryland, the Public Service Commission will likely investigate the response of the state's utility companies to Isabel, beginning in about three weeks after the companies have gathered data on the outage.

"The company has a big incentive to get power back on because they can't collect revenue if the meters aren't turning," Turner said. "They can't make that money back.

"That alone is a huge incentive to get service back on for people quickly."

Sun staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

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