Local crews respond to hurricane aftermath

Concord power line and tree-trimming crews just returned from a week-long trip working to restore power throughout the northeastern part of the state after Hurricane Irene when they were sent out to help with local troubles.

Late Sept. 2, straight-line winds - remnants of Tropical Storm Lee - toppled 15 power lines on U.S. 29 across from the former Phillip Morris plant. Nearly 675 customers were temporarily without power. Traffic was diverted at Rock Hill Church Road and Concord Farms Road while initial repairs were made.

Among other damage, the roof was partially ripped off the Bassett Furniture store near Concord Mills that night.

Winds from an early morning storm Sept. 6 downed more power lines and caused three schools to close. About 800 people who use the Duke Energy system were without power throughout the Rocky River Road area in Cabarrus County.

A timeline

More than a dozen Concord Electric Systems employees helped restore power to nearly 40,000 customers in eastern North Carolina, where hundreds of thousands of people were affected by Hurricane Irene on Aug. 27.

The next day, Concord Electric Systems sent a line crew and a tree crew, along with three Carolina Tree employees, to Farmville in Pitt County. Another line crew left Aug. 29 for Tarboro. After finishing work in Farmville and Tarboro, the crews moved to Rocky Mount and Kinston.

All the crews returned to Concord Sept. 2, but one crew that arrived around 10:30 p.m. immediately went to help with the 15 downed power lines near the Phillip Morris property.

In eastern North Carolina, David White, an electric overhead line crew supervisor, and team members Billy Deese, Brenton Jarrett, Chris Aldridge, A.J. Blair and Brandon Moose helped restore power. Tree crew supervisor Bill Leake and team members Marino Perez, Michael Brafford and Eric Pettigrew assisted in tree removal.

The crews operated three bucket trucks, two pickup trucks and a line truck. The Carolina Tree contract crew provided an extra bucket truck.

Bob Pate, Concord's electric systems director for about a year, is a Concord native. He said all the crewmembers that helped with repairs in the east live in Cabarrus County. Some, like Moose, have been employed only about six months, while others have 25 or more years of service.

Pate said Concord has a mutual-aid agreement with about 70 cities through Electricities of N.C. During hurricane season, Concord crews help fix damaged lines, while other cities come to our area to help with ice storms during the winter, he said.

Pate said Concord crews haven't been called out since Hurricane Fran in 2009.

"Irene seemed to deliver a bigger blow than Fran," said Pate. "Typically, when a hurricane hits the coast, we head that way."

The work is far from easy.

"They're missing their families, working 14- to 16-hour days, pretty much nonstop except when meals are brought to them by side of the road," said Pate. "They go to sleeping facilities that are not always ideal. You don't expect a lot the first couple of days. You hope it will get better, but realistically you're not going to get a whole lot."

Restoring power

Larry Barbee, electric supervisor for 15 years and a system employee for 24, also is a Concord native. On Aug. 29, he and his crew left for Tarboro, where they replaced poles, power lines and transformers and hooked up houses to electric services.

"We slept in a flooded hotel, but the smell from the mold was worse than the wet floor," Barbee said of his first night on the road. "Then a severe thunderstorm popped up and a tornado touched down three miles south of where we were working. When we went back out to work, it was in ankle-deep water."

Barbee said breakfasts and lunches aren't always the greatest, but supper usually hits the spot.

"We ate a Bojangles biscuit and coffee for breakfast, then people brought food out to us to eat on the curb," Barbee said of his chicken and slaw or fish-and-shrimp lunches. "It was cold, because they had to box up a lot of meals. But at night they let us go to Golden Corral for the buffet.

"Then, after we ate, we had to travel 25 miles to sleep in our hotel."

Barbee said his reward comes not only from restoring power, but from seeing people's faces light up with thanks.

"You just love to get people's power back on," said Barbee. "When I was in Kinston, we restored power to two elderly people. A man came out with his breathing machine on and said, 'I can't say much to you, but we thank you.' He insisted we meet his wife before we left, and when we did, she said, 'I don't know what to tell you, but God bless you.'

"So it's things like that that keep you motivated. We know conditions are not going to be the best. When you leave out of here, you know what to expect, and it's going to be the worst."