The power of experience
Retired OUC workers heed call for help
Jim Grantham, 61, a retired Orlando Utilities Commission manager who lives in Georgia, pauses Wednesday while working on power restoration in west Orlando. (RED HUBER/ORLANDO SENTINEL / September 30, 2004)
The retired guys.
Among the hundreds of linemen and tree trimmers working to restore power to thousands of OUC customers after Hurricane Jeanne are a dozen men who gave all that up years ago for retired life.
They couldn't sit still when three hurricanes blew away much of the electrical system they helped construct in Orlando and St. Cloud. Some of them, such as Jim Grantham, 61, probably can't sit still under any circumstances.
"They call me wormy because I can't stop moving," said Grantham, who drove down last week from Blairsville, Ga., to join the bucket-truck convoys. Since then he's been putting in 16-hour days just like linemen a third of his age.
"It's just pride, 30 years of your life," Grantham said Wednesday, midway through a workday that started at 6 a.m. "It's almost like all these people you work with are your brothers, sisters. You enjoy coming back and seeing them and it makes you feel like you're part of something."
Grantham has done volunteer work for Rotary International and the Blairsville Chamber of Commerce since he retired in 1998. He has a daughter in Orlando and came down last Thursday, figuring if his help wasn't needed, he could always just visit.
Others, such as Lloyd Davis, 60, and Bob Pearch, 61, came running when called. The calls came personally from Ken Ksionek, OUC general manager and chief executive officer.
"They built the system. They know the system, after all the years they put in. Those guys have worked 25-35 years. Their familiarity with the system was key," Ksionek said. "They're able to bring different skill sets back to us we didn't have. They were able to lead these outside crews. They know where the streets are, where the grids run, where it transforms from overhead to underground."
They're being paid a lineman supervisor's hourly wage, about $27 an hour.
With 450 staff, retired and outside linemen working, OUC restored power to all 110,000 customers who were blown off line by Hurricane Jeanne on Sunday. Spokesman Grant Heston said all customers reporting an outage were connected, and OUC beat its self-imposed deadline by two days.
Elsewhere, Kissimmee Utility Authority announced it has restored power to all its 58,000 electric customers. The last 30 or so customers were restored Wednesday, said spokesman Chris Gent.
Progress Energy thinks it should have all of its customers powered up by the end of Friday, said spokesman C.J. Drake. Previously, some people, including customers in west Orange County, were told it might take until Sunday.
Florida Power & Light, the dominant electric company in the worst-hit coastal areas from Melbourne south, is holding to its prediction that some might not have power until Oct. 12. However, FP&L said all but a few thousand of its Orlando-area customers in Seminole and Volusia counties were back on line Wednesday.
Keeping OUC's power on was Pearch's mission for 35 years before he retired in 1997. He now spends summers in Cleveland, Ga., but still comes back regularly to volunteer patrolling streets as part of the Orlando Police Department's Citizens on Patrol.
Davis put in 30 years before retiring in 1996 but still came back to work for OUC occasionally on a contract basis until he moved to Sumter County early this year.
This week, they've been leading line crews that came to town from Texas to help out.
"I don't miss the work," Pearch said. "I came back basically to help a community I think an awful lot of, and feel an obligation to -- just giving something back to a community that's been good to me."
Some of the retirees are directing crews of younger, out-of-town workers. But some are going up poles, cutting branches, pulling line. Ksionek said he never doubted the men could handle the physical parts of the job, or the long hours.
"Basically, all linemen are always in good shape," Davis said. "We had to climb poles for years."
Finding out for sure was part of the appeal for Grantham.
"I just feel I'm on my last leg of this journey of life," he said. "You kind of go into denial. You kind of hope you can still do things."
And as the retirees come back, they're doing so in a town where power company linemen are becoming the new urban heroes. People love seeing their trucks pull up. Most of the retirees had worked hurricanes before, joining caravans of linemen to places such as Homestead after Andrew in 1992.
But this time they're performing before a home crowd.
"They're treating us super, super well," Pearch said of people they're serving. "They bend over backwards to try to help. They ask you if you want something to drink, something to eat. They thank you over and over."
Susan Jacobson of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Scott Powers can be reached at 407-420-5441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.