Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah workers who helped restore power to New Jersey neighborhoods said they had never experienced such damage, but were overwhelmed with the gratitude that residents expressed to them.
Sixteen linemen and two managers from Rocky Mountain Power arrived home in Utah late Thursday after spending two weeks working to restore power to Livingston, N.J.
Their work began Nov 1, three days after superstorm Sandy devastated the area. After two weeks of working through long hours and experiencing a Nor'easter blizzard, the crew was finally able to restore power to all customers in their assigned area.
But much of their efforts were only "Band-Aid" repairs, said lineman Dee Schumers, who described tying power equipment together with rope in their haste to restore service.
"The whole goal was, 'Get them on some way, somehow, even if you have to lash them up,'" Schumers said. "They'll be working on that for years."
On Friday, six members of the Utah crew sat down with the Deseret News to recount their experience. Most of the men have decades of experience in utility work, but said the scope of the damage in New Jersey was more than anything they had ever seen.
The workers encountered blocked roads, destroyed power lines and damaged homes, mostly due to fallen trees from the storm. Residents who were able to stay in their homes went without power for days and in some cases weeks. Outside, downed power lines caused some of the asphalt roads to melt and crystallize into a glassy tar.
"I don't think I've ever encountered a situation with this magnitude in my entire career with Rocky Mountain Power," said Todd Lindley.
But amid all the destruction and loss, the workers said it was the incredible gratitude of the residents they helped that they would remember most.
"They were almost jumping up on your truck to give you a hug," said Brent Maag.
"I got hugs and a few kisses — and that was from the men," added Paul Garcia.
Residents often referred to the Rocky Mountain Power crew by nicknames like the Utah Angels, the Sweet 16 and the Dirty Dozen, the linemen said. In many instances they were the first utility workers that homeowners saw after days of calling and hoping for relief.
"How do you go about your normal life without power for two weeks?" Kody Swenson said. "Turn your power off and try it, it's not going to be easy."
Sandy caused 8.5 million outages across 21 states, with New York and New Jersey receiving the most damage, according to the Associated Press. Service has been restored to most areas, but on Thursday the Long Island Power Authority reported that just under 3,000 customers remained without power, not counting flood areas where power cannot be restored.
In Livingston, Maag said snow from the Nor'easter storm that followed Sandy caused some additional trees to topple and caused additional damage to power lines. But he said even if people had thought to trim trees before Sandy hit, the damage would have been the same.
"This type of storm, there's no way you could have prepared for it," he said. "These trees are just too tall."
The men worked 16-hour shifts for each of the 15 days they were stationed in Livingston. In many cases they worked in potentially dangerous conditions and relied on each other for safety and support.
Todd Horton said it was a difficult choice to leave his family for two weeks, but it was ultimately worth it to see the difference made in the lives of the people he was helping.
"I like being with my family," he said. "I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but it made you feel really good every time you turned the power on."