Power workers return from Isabel recovery

By Greg Gelpi

When they arrived 1.6 million people were without power, and by the time they left that number dwindled to about 600.

Teams of Georgia Power workers helped the East Coast recover from the devastation left by Hurricane Isabel last month in a prearranged cooperative agreement between power companies designed for such emergencies. On Thursday, they returned home and recounted their experiences.

"I had one kid come up to me and say I was a hero," Bill Harris, a local worker who has worked at least 10 hurricanes, said.

Droves of utilities workers flooded the area from around the country, and, in turn, areas, Clayton County, will receive help in the future if it needs it.

Working 16-hour days for two weeks non-stop, Georgia Power sent a delegation of 464 workers, which included 17 from the county, Danny Black, Georgia Power's engineer supervisor, said. Georgia Power workers repaired areas around Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., during recovery efforts.

"What kept us going was just knowing that we might get a few more people's power back on," Chris Morris, one of the local Georgia Power workers, said Thursday after returning home from a week in the field.

This was her first experience helping restore power after a disaster, she said, but left with a "good feeling."

"It was rewarding to see people get their power turned on," Morris said. "People baked us cakes, bought us gifts and brought us balloons."

Trekking into swampy wooded regions and narrow areas among houses, workers were often forced to abandon their equipment and resorted to using their bare hands. Work included hanging on wobbly poles for hours fixing power lines.

"One guy at headquarters, who had been there 30 years, said he hadn't seen so much damage," Morris said.

Drawing personnel and materials from all over, they teamed up to help neighbors in need.

"We used about five years' worth of materials," Harris said, referring to the amount of poles, wire and other items needed to piece the region back together.

Power companies regularly enter into agreements in case of disasters, Black said.

"If we have problems companies can send people our way, and if they have problems we can send people their way," he said.

If something knocked out the local power system, electrical workers from the region would respond in kind by returning the favor in accordance to agreements, Black said.

"You don't want to have to scrounge around," he said. "You know you can call on other companies."

Georgia Power allows the workers with the most overtime the first choice to earn more overtime in the case of a disaster.

Other metro Atlantans who went up to help were Red Cross volunteers and soldiers from Fort Gillem, who all moved into place just as the hurricane was slamming the beach communities.

Tropical Storm Isabel developed Sept. 6 about 600 miles west of the Southern Cape Verde Islands. The next day the storm was upgraded to a hurricane. On Sept. 11 Isabel became the first Category 5 Hurricane in the Atlantic since Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Isabel made landfall on Sept. 18 as a Category 2 Hurricane.