ALBANY, Ga. -- There's an old saying that circulates among the unheralded utilities linemen who keep the electricity flowing into our homes and businesses: God created linemen because firemen need heroes, too.
And so it was a week after Superstorm Sandy devastated the New Jersey Shore and New York with winds, rain and ocean surges that left dozens dead and millions without electricity. Given the go-ahead to do what they'd been champing at the bit to do before the storm even came ashore, seven Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission crewman made the 1,000-mile trip to a staging area at northern New Jersey's Monmouth Race Track to offer a hand to their Jersey Central Power & Light brethren who were overwhelmed by the task that Sandy left in her aftermath.
For two weeks, the seven WG&L employees -- Light Director Jimmy Norman, supervisor Bubba Horne, linemen Stacy Cook and Patrick Moncrief, and apprentice linemen Clifton Keeler, Robbie Purifoy and Lee Green -- worked 16-hour days, restoring power to homes in the Oceanport, N.J., area for grateful residents who were left bent but not broken by the storm. The crew members returned to Albany, worn by unceasing winds, cold temperatures and some 14 inches of snow, but somehow better for the experience.
"This is what we're all about," Norman said of the trip. "It's something that gets in the blood of linemen, a sense of pride and worth. It's something that only a few can do, and any lineman who is true to the job is ready to go at any time.
"It's an experience these guys will never forget. But they'll take it and learn from it and use it throughout their careers."
THE GO-AHEAD GIVEN
When the call went out through Electric Cities of Georgia, which trains many of the state's linemen, looking for volunteers to lend Jersey Central Power & Light a hand, the request worked its way up the chain of command at WG&L. Norman, who has been at the utility for 23 years, the last five as light director, went to Assistant General Manager for Operations Keith Goodin with a plan to take a crew north, and Goodin and General Manager Lemuel Edwards decided to greenlight the trip.
"You have to," Edwards said of signing off on the volunteer assignment. "All I had to do was think back to the Flood of '94, about how crews came from all over to help us out, and I knew it was time to 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'
"We made sure our customer base was covered, made sure that we would not be short-handed to a point where we couldn't handle an emergency with trained personnel, and gave the go-ahead."
Norman and his crew of WG&L volunteers loaded supplies into a pair of "material handler" bucket trucks and a pickup on Nov. 3 and started north at 6 a.m. They met up with a four-person crew from Crisp Power at the intersection of U.S. Highway 300 and Interstate 75 and later with two volunteers from LaFayette and six others from Cartersville at the Bass Pro Shop north of Atlanta.
The convoy made its way to Raleigh-Durham, N.C., before settling down at a hotel near midnight, then completed the almost-12-hour drive from there to New Jersey around 6 p.m. the following evening.
"Things were surprisingly well organized when we got there," Norman said. "We had to sit through safety meetings, and some of our guys had to go through switching classes, but as soon as we were properly informed, we started to work."
The 19-member Georgia crew, overseen by Norman, worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. for two weeks, replacing broken power poles, splicing and hooking up damaged wires, and restoring service to houses in the area.
"The first day we were there, we returned power to between 2,000 and 3,000 customers," Norman said. "Every day, we were able to bring more and more online. But it was a huge job. JCPL told us that of their 1 million customers, 900,000 were withour power."
The Georgia crew slept on cots set up in a semi trailer, ate breakfast at the Monmouth staging area and carried a box lunch with them onto job sites. They cycled their way through work orders delivered by local utilities officials, came back to base around 10 p.m., ate dinner and went to bed. Their trucks were refueled while they slept, and the next morning they went back to work.
"The people there gave us such a warm reception," Norman said. "We'd set our trucks up to work, and every time we got back in them there were doughnuts and pots of coffee left for us. We'd go into local restaurants, and people would insist on picking up the tab. Those folks were so appreciative, and that's really why you do this."
OBJECTIVE: TO HELP
After returning to Albany, Norman tallied up the labor time, equipment charges, fuel costs and meals paid for out of pocket by his crew. An invoice was sent to Jersey Central Power and Light, which will eventually pay all costs once insurance and FEMA claims have been filed.
"Our objective was to help folks up there get back on their feet," Edwards said. "We will be reimbursed, but we do not require it right up front. They have to go through the process, but we know our funds will come to us after they finish."
Funding, obviously, has to be considered. But for the people who made the long trip and braved the elements to help their fellow man, that issue quickly became secondary.
"To be honest with you, I went up there thinking it was good money," Green said of his first emergency trip outside Georgia. "But when you get there and see what those people are going through, you realize it's not about the money at all. It's about helping others.
"It was really a miserable experience: There was what they call a Nor'easter that came through, and the wind never got below 30 or 40 miles an hour. We worked through rain, sleet and snow, got soaking wet and were freezing a good bit of the time we were there. But when you saw how appreciative those people were to have their power back on, all that didn't really matter. If I ever get the chance, I'd definitely do this again."
Of course he would, and so would his WG&L colleagues who are part of the brotherhood of linemen. After all, firemen -- and doctors and lawyers and police officers and sanitation workers and bankers and salesmen and plumbers and journalists -- need heroes, too.