Janesville electrical workers to aid in Hurricane Irma recovery

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Neil Johnson
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

JANESVILLEElectrical linemen Justin Busfield and Brent LaBuy left Janesville on Monday for hurricane-ravaged Florida, armed with a Rock Energy Cooperative bucket truck and their own pillows and blankets.

Among the challenges the Rock Energy journeymen could face over the next two weeks near Jacksonville, Florida: alligators, poisonous snakes and spiders, 16-hour workdays and the distinct possibility they'll have to shack up in tents or their truck.

Busfield of Janesville and LaBuy of Machesney Park, Illinois, are part of a convoy of nearly two dozen Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association crew members bound for a 14-county area in northeastern Florida, where Hurricane Irma has torn up the power grid.

They'll be among about 50 people helping Clay Electric Cooperative restore power to at least 140,000 people in an area nearly the size of Delaware.

Millions more remain without power throughout Florida.

LaBuy has traveled with hurricane relief crews before, including in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast.

This is Busfield's first time working a storm relief detail, and he said he's excited. He considers it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lineman.

The two will travel for two days with the Wisconsin convoy. They'll rendezvous Wednesday in Lake City, Florida, where they'll drive into a storm-wracked landscape as other crews are still assessing damage. They'll get assignments and go right to work.

“It's pretty chaotic. There'll be trucks everywhere. Guys everywhere," LaBuy said. "Normally, they try to do their damage assessment first, and the assessment ... obviously, it usually isn't good.

“The initial arrival in my past experience is not a pretty thing. I've seen everything destroyed. They've gone through a disaster. They're going through a lot of cleanup and assessing damage, and start rebuilding. Unfortunately, in areas like that that get hit, there's not a lot of fixing. There's a lot of rebuilding that goes on.”

The Wisconsin crews have been readying their response for about a week, said Steve Freese, CEO of the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association.

The association is part of a national consortium of electric cooperatives that send linemen and other electrical workers to help in massive outages nationwide. The Wisconsin crews were assigned to northern parts of Florida during the lead-up to Irma. A group of Illinois electrical workers will join them, Freese said.

Freese and Rock Energy CEO Shane Larson said the Wisconsin workers will be in Florida for two weeks. At the end of that stint, the association could bus in as many as 20 more workers to relieve them.

Alliant Energy also announced it's sending about 200 of its electrical workers Tuesday morning to northern Florida.

Spokesman Chris DuPre said Alliant's team includes linemen, crew managers and mechanics drawn from the southern, eastern and western portions of the state.

DuPre said it likely will be a two-day trek for the crews. They'll leave about 9 a.m. Tuesday from Alliant's town of Beloit facility.

When the workers arrive in Florida, they'll get their marching orders from utility company officials. DuPre said preliminary plans are that the Alliant crews will fan out through northern and central Florida and work there for two weeks.

The utilities that requested Alliant's aid—mainly Florida Power and Light—will reimburse Alliant for work and materials, DuPre said.

LaBuy said he and Busfield expect to work 16-hour days.

“In the past, we'd work with crews where you start in a substation, take a feeder and work it," LaBuy said. "Follow it out and try to get the main line up—try to get some of their vital buildings, hospitals, 911, stuff like that. And after that, it's just picking away along each path.

“Usually they feed us, but it's work sunup to sundown.”

The Wisconsin crews' route will take them south to Missouri, then east through Mississippi. It's circuitous path, but Freese said the intent is to skirt heavy rain and wind as Irma continues to spin through the South.

In Florida, Freese said, the crews will face danger not just from downed power lines and submerged transformers. They'll also contend with poisonous snakes, spiders and scores of alligators that have been displaced by the storm surge.

Rock Energy spokeswoman Barb Uebelacker said Monday it wasn't clear whether shelters or hotels will be available for the workers.

She said workers have their own pillows and blankets, and they might have to sleep in tents or in their work trucks as some volunteers did after Hurricane Katrina.

Freese and Larson said volunteer cooperatives tend to keep their workers paired together for the sake of familiarity and safety during long, taxing days.

“So much of this is a balance to try to keep the guys involved fresh enough to be safe," Larson said. "These guys are taking time away from their families. They want to go help. They want it to get done as quick as possible. They have that 'get 'er done' attitude.”

LaBuy and Busfield said they're glad they'll be with each other as they head into an unknown situation. In Wisconsin, the two have been partners for eight years.

“There's a lot of trust in what we do together," LaBuy said. "He is gonna watch my back. I'm gonna watch his."

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