Duke powers up restoration teams sent to Florida

Crews of Duke Energy linemen, including workers from Columbus, are heading into the aftermath of Hurricane Irma to restore power to storm-battered Floridians.

Sam Mills of Columbus, who has worked for 25 years for Duke including serving as a lineman for 16 years, is supervising crews from southeast Indiana who have deployed to Florida as the storm winds its way inland.

About 1,400 Duke Midwest line workers, contractors and support personnel, including 630 from Indiana, responded to join power-restoration efforts in Florida, said Chip Orben, government and community relations managerĀ for Duke Energy, which supplies power in Columbus.

Mills and the eight crews of linemen he is supervising initially traveled to Georgia and have since been deployed to Jasper, Florida, a city of about 4,500 people east of Interstate 75, about five miles south of the Florida-Georgia state line. The Duke Energy contingent includes damage assessors, line workers, tree crews and other support personnel, Orben said.

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In his eighth trip to a storm-damaged area with Duke crews, Mills said the linemen stayed in an old school building Sunday night as Irma passed through with about 80 mph winds that did not phase the school building, but wreaked havoc on nearby trees.

The power went out in the school at 2 a.m., Mills said, and Duke crews were in assessment mode to determine their strategy for restoring power to the area as soon as possible.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever to hit the United States, knocked out power to 1.3 million customers in Florida, Orben said.

First up will be to make sure all the area’s electrical substations are running, and then crews will set up on individual circuits to restore power, Mills said.

Crews will focus on circuits that provide power to emergency services such as hospitals, firefighters and police departments and also will make sure that power gets to shelters and a few motels as soon as possible to help the residents, he said.

“Most of that is on the main line,” he said.

After that, the crews will focus on the residential areas after debris and tree crews that travel with the lineman have removed the downed trees and other barriers to repairs.

“It’s extremely dangerous work,” Mills allowed, saying there are any number of ways a lineman can be injured in hurricane-aftermath conditions. They will be facing high water, downed trees, and — since this is Florida — alligators, he said.

“We’re assuming the lines are de-energized,” but that isn’t a given and crews must be constantly aware as they work 16-hour shifts, he said.

The linemen and tree crews do get eight hours sleep and emergency management officials make sure that meals and showers are available.

Shower trucks set up near the place where the lineman are assigned to stay, and portable cook stations, some manned by community volunteers, feed the workers each day, Mills said.

Each person who is deployed brings a mat and sleeping bag and selects some space of their own where they are staying for the duration for their deployment, he said.

Mills has served in other hurricane-damaged areas, including Hurricane Sandy in New York, and Katrina in Louisiana. He’s also traveled to Detroit twice to work on outages caused by ice storms.

“Many of these workers are seasoned veterans, having worked in numerous storm-restoration efforts,” Orben said. “When the weather is at its worst, we’re often at our best. One of the advantages of being a large utility in multiple areas of the country is we can deploy our crews from non-impacted areas to storm-damaged areas and restore power to our customers more quickly. They can also help us when needed.”

Several other Columbus residents, including engineers and back-office personnel, will be sent in the coming weeks to relieve workers in Florida now, he said. Those shifts will continue for about 10 days until they are relieved with new crews coming in to help, Orben said.

Mills said he is attempting to keep in contact with his wife Cindy, who also works at Duke Energy in Columbus, and their three daughters, by texting, as phone service and internet is extremely spotty in the aftermath of the hurricane.

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To learn more about Hoosiers who are deployed to the Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma relief effort, visit:

Indiana National Guard: facebook.com/IndianaGuardsman

Vectren: vectren.com

Duke Energy: duke-energy.com