‘We Do a Job That Not Everybody Can Do’: A Q&A With Florida Mutual Aid Crewmembers

Supervisory journeyman line technicians James A. Perry, left, and Shawn S. Leite are part of a crew sent by Peace River Electric Cooperative to provide mutual aid assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. (Photo Courtesy: PRECO)
Supervisory journeyman line technicians James A. Perry, left, and Shawn S. Leite are part of a crew sent by Peace River Electric Cooperative to provide mutual aid assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. (Photo Courtesy: PRECO)

Thousands of electric cooperative lineworkers are involved in power restoration in the Southeast in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm ever recorded on the Florida Panhandle.

Supervisory journeyman line technicians James A. Perry, 35, and Shawn S. Leite, 49, are part of an 11-person crew sent by Peace River Electric Cooperative to provide mutual aid assistance to the region’s hardest-hit co-ops. PRECO is based in Wauchula, Florida, about 260 miles south of Madison, the headquarters of Tri-County Electric Cooperative, where PRECO personnel were first assigned following Hurricane Michael.

Under long-standing mutual aid agreements, electric cooperatives routinely respond to requests for assistance whenever another faces extensive restoration work following a disaster.

NRECA caught up with Perry and Leite as they wrapped up work at Tri-County Electric. They are now working in the territory of Wewahitchka, Florida-based Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative, which suffered some of the worst damage from the historic hurricane’s high winds and storm surge.

Q: What stands out about Hurricane Michael in contrast to other mutual aid events you’ve worked?

Leite: Hurricane Michael has been different because of the quickness that it came from a tropical storm to the intensity that it had at landfall. Everybody had to get prepared in such a short time, and with a lot of the hurricanes, they’ll track for a long period. That gives cooperatives a lot longer to get things together and get people mobilized.

Michael was also different from [Hurricane] Florence because it didn’t linger long. Florence just sat there and dumped a lot of rain. Because Michael moved on as quickly as it did, we were able to get here quickly, and that helped all of us move through Tri-County EC’s service territory, getting the lights on faster.

Q: What have you seen in the way of damage in Tri-County EC’s service territory?

Perry: We didn’t see too much damage coming up, but what we’re seeing here is a lot of lines down, a lot of big trees falling over, and broken poles here and there. Not as major here compared to some of the other places that were hit harder.

Leite: People in the Tri-County area fared better than folks closer to the coast.  They may be missing some shingles, and some garages and sheds blew over, but mainly there’s just a lot of tree damage. There are downed trees everywhere.  They are all over the ground.

Q: Between the two of you, you’ve covered about 20 different co-op mutual aid events over the years. What kind of reactions do you get when you show up in your unfamiliar trucks and start working to turn the lights back on?

Perry: At times like this, they’re the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They’ll do anything for you. They’ll get you food, whatever they got. They’ll bring out waters for every member of the crew. Whatever they can do to help them get the power back.

Every now and then you get your people that are angry, but they just don’t understand how putting up lines and getting the system back operating works, so they get angry and frustrated.  For the most part, they’ll help out any way they can, and it’s a real pleasure meeting people from different walks of life.

Q: What about the co-op people—on a mutual aid assignment like this you work with people who understand your jobs, but may have their own views on how to approach different tasks?

Perry: You kind of form a bond with them because, you know, it is a small, small town deal, but you meet a lot of the same people over and over again. I’ve been at Tri-County EC two or three times already, and I know some of the people that still work here. I’ve met them in the past and they’ve came down and helped us. You form a bond with them, and then it’s like a brotherhood. We do a job that not everybody can do, a dangerous job, but it’s more of a pride issue as well.

Q: Both of you have been doing this work a long time, and you’ve seen a lot of changes. How has technology changed the process of doing major restorations?

Perry: We’ve got digital access to individual restoration jobs on a computer and they can close in [circuits] from the office. It helps us get the lights on a lot faster. It’s more efficient.

Some co-ops are farther behind than others, but it’s a good way to go, because essentially if you have someone in dispatch, they can see a lot more than what you’re seeing physically. … So it helps you do your job a lot faster and it’s just more efficient.

Leite:  You can see outages, you can direct people, you can direct the line into certain areas. A lot of it’s like instantaneous, and dispatch is watching this stuff real-time.  We even have drone technology now where we can fly drones in areas that before you’d have to walk this stuff out because you couldn’t get vehicles in. Now you can fly a drone in, check the line out, and it saves time.

A lineman can work a little bit longer career-wise because of the technology with tools and everything else available … because they don’t get worn out as quickly as they might have with the old manual tools that we had to use back in the day.

Q: What is a typical day like on one of these mutual aid assignments after a storm like Hurricane Michael?

Perry: You wake up, eat breakfast, then you get out and start working. Then you might eat lunch sometimes because you’re too busy and you try and get as many people back on as you can on throughout the shift. It’s our job to get as much stuff fixed before the sun goes down and then keep working after the sun goes down and it gets dark. When it’s dark, working can be a lot more intense because we don’t know the territory, and then there’s still damage everywhere. Then we head back to the staging areas at night, where we eat pretty late, and then we go to the motel and sleep.

Leite: A 12- to 16-hour shift can be like an adrenaline rush. You’re in a new place and here to help out. It’s go-go-go, but as the days go on, it starts to take its toll on your body. It’s a physical job. Sometimes, you might not eat for four, five, or six or more hours. All that takes a toll on you as the days go by. Getting up at 4:35 in the morning and then getting to bed at 11, 12 at night, definitely takes a toll on you.

But again, your adrenaline will kick in and you know you are here trying to get people’s lights back on. So you might be out there dragging, but you know you can get 5,100 people on if you keep going. Then you have people coming out saying thank you, and it kind of gives you a little bit of a pickup again, and you just keep moving through it.

Q: What about home? You’ve both got families, and some of these mutual aid assignments can last longer than a week?

Perry: I have little kids, so they’re asleep by the time I get to the room, so I don’t talk to them much. I talk to my wife throughout the day, three or four times. It is easier with our own cellphones, but we are working so much that you really don’t have the opportunity to talk to them as much as you’d like. I mean it does make it nicer with cellphones, but when they’re little kids they miss you being home.

Leite: It’s definitely a great asset to have a phone in your pocket. You can pick the phone up and make a call or get a call. If there was an emergency before, your family would have to go through your co-op and they would have to go through the dispatch of the co-op you were helping. Then, they would have to find out where you were working.

Before cellphones, it was just truck radios, or you’d have a beeper on you and they give you a nine-slash-11 on it, you knew to call the dispatch. It’s nice to be able to make a phone call or to get a phone call from your wife. She’s proud of you for being there, helping people out, because the tides turn and just like last year we had Irma, you know, and we had people come help us when Irma hit. So it’s definitely nice for them to be able to share the appreciation, because our families have a stake in this, too.

Read More:

Tracking the Co-op Response to Michael
NRECA Supporting Electric Co-ops in the Path of Michael
Information Hub: Electric Co-ops and Michael
Social Media Roundup: See How Co-ops Are Responding to the Storm