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Sandy victims welcome Columbus volunteer crew

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When Duke Energy workers from Columbus left for Charleston, W.Va., to assist with cleanup in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, they were banking on dealing with unpleasant weather conditions.

What Kevin Morgan, Duke’s manager of construction and maintenance, wasn’t as prepared for was the reception he and his team of nearly 150 volunteers would receive.

Amid the broken poles, downed trees and wires littering the streets of darkened neighborhoods, the team met with adverse weather conditions but a tremendously warm reception from residents.

“We were very welcomed,” said Morgan, who was scheduled to return with his crew Monday afternoon. “They were baking pies and bringing out hot chocolate to the guys.”

How to help

If you’re looking to offer a monetary donation to the disaster cleanup efforts, stop by Arni’s Restaurant, 2765 Brentwood Drive , on Tuesday, Nov. 20 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The waitstaff is hoping to achieve a goal of $1,500 by giving 100 percent of all tips made that day to the American Red Cross to assist those affected by Superstorm Sandy.

Being able to give residents the comfort of knowing their power is being restored and allowing them to have some sense of normalcy was rewarding for Morgan and the volunteers.

Traversing the mountainous regions proved challenging for the crew. When they weren’t slipping up and down muddy hillsides, workers were ascending and descending steep mountainsides and ravines. In addition to the normal tools required to restore power, such as rubber overshoes and safety glasses, the workers found they needed more unconventional ones such as ice cleats and ropes.

Among the many hazards, crew members often found themselves working in areas inaccessible by vehicles. Often wearing the ice cleats over their boots, the mud from melting ice filled the cleats complicating the situation further. Wildlife in the area also posed some concern, as the volunteers stumbled across snake dens and bear tracks. In some cases, sinkholes and narrow, debris-strewn roads also slowed the work efforts.

Morgan said from the time his crew arrived, there was a sense of urgency to restore power. Many of the residents were quickly approaching more than a week with no heat or lights. Regardless of where the crews ended up working for the day, Morgan said the residents’ attitudes remained consistent.

“All the people are the same,” Morgan said. “They have needs, and they’re very caring and gracious. The people were absolutely wonderful.”

Working upward of 16-hour days, the crews were able to restore power to dozens of homes in Charleston before preparing to leave for their next stop in New Jersey.

When the team left for Paramus, N.J., they weren’t anticipating additional challenges they’d face.

Morgan said it was frustrating for the group to transition from a single staging area and with freedom to move around, as they’d had in Charleston, to restricted, multiple areas in Paramus. Traveling with a caravan of 70 vehicles, the group was relocated three times before settling into an abandoned Home Depot parking lot. And with each move, there were issues, including how to get fuel and adequate sanitation facilities for the crews and providing security. Off-duty police officers were assigned to make sure no one broke into the trucks or siphoned fuel from them.

And then came the announcement of a nor’easter rolling in.

During a phone interview that Wednesday, Morgan anticipated the storm might slow down restoration efforts but stressed the volunteers would continue to work as long as it could be done safely.

“It really didn’t have much of an effect,” Morgan later said. “It was less than a 24-hour event and was done when we got up the next morning.”

Throughout the nearly two-week trip, Morgan said everyone on the team was able to regularly keep in touch with family back home. Of the 150 volunteers, Shane Johnson was one of a few from Columbus.

“I expected people would be unhappy and a bit disgruntled,” Johnson said. “But the reception was very warm, and they were happy to see us.”

Johnson recalled that, while in Paramus, two little boys who lived next door to their school rushed out to ask the Duke workers if they would please turn their power on first. When asked why, the two replied they wanted to go back to school.

As power was restored, large video screens in town, often used for advertisements, read, “Thank you, Duke, for getting our power back on.”

In his fourth year as a line apprentice with Duke Energy, 40-year-old Johnson considers his first experience with storm cleanup uplifting and a blessing.

“It was kind of overwhelming to be part of this,” Johnson said. “The one common thing I saw was people from all backgrounds, they all had a great attitude. They were very family-oriented. It was like a giant Mayberry.”

Understanding firsthand how rewarding it is to help others, Johnson said he now sees why “seasoned volunteers” jump at the chance to help out when need arises.

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