After days without power, New Jerseyans welcome southern utility crews with open arms

Posted Aug 07, 2020

The usual neighborly chatter on Harvard Street in Montclair had a distinctly Southern ring to it Friday, as utility crews who had driven there from Georgia, Alabama and Texas worked to restore power in a state some had never been to before, for customers they said were unusually appreciative of what they do.

“People been real nice, real friendly,” said Keith Jones, a 53-year-old lineman for the Georgia-based utility support company UTec Construction, one of more than a dozen power workers on the block that morning, three days after Tropical Storm Isaias blew through.

Jones, who was on his first visit to New Jersey, said UTec crews had set out on the road even before Tropical Storm Isaias hit in anticipation of outages in Florida, but then yo-yoed back up north to New Jersey after it was clear that’s where they were needed most.

“We started in Georgia, then we went to Daytona, then we went down to Miami, and then we ended up here. So, it was about a four-day trip,” said Jones, who lives in Barnesville, a town in west-central Georgia once dubbed the “Buggy Capital of the South.”

Impressions of the Garden State among Jones and his colleagues were overwhelmingly positive, defying some of the clichés they’d heard about northern congestion and incivility.

“Traffic was a lot better than I thought,” Jones said.

“Not a lot of road rage,” added fellow UTec lineman Bryan Broomfield, 33, of Louisville, Georgia.

More than 1.4 million homes and businesses across New Jersey lost power Tuesday afternoon — a quarter of all customers — as Isaias’s 70mph winds made matchsticks out of tree trunks and downed power lines across the state. Gov. Phil Murphy said that more than 300,000 homes and businesses were still without power on Friday, two-thirds of them customers of JCP&L, the most heavily criticized of New Jersey’s utilities for its pace of restoration.

But the front-line, out-of-state workers who spoke to NJ Advance Media on Friday said customers who had been without power since Tuesday expressed only gratitude that the crews were finally on the scene — even if they described the outage in language that might have been lacking in Southern gentility.

“They cuss a lot up here,” Broomfield said with a grin.

Harvard Street was abuzz with hard-hatted, yellow-vested workers from several Southern companies, including AMP Electric of Amarillo, Texas and CSR, a subsidiary of Alabama-based PowerGrid Services that rounds up and dispatches utility crews to trouble spots around the country in response to or anticipation of storm damage and outages. PSE&G also had a supervisor and assistant on the block Friday to coordinate the work.

By 9 a.m., the street’s Belgian block curbs were lined with pickups and bucket trucks with out-of-state plates. They pulled into driveways to untangle or reconnect backyard power lines snagged and stretched by broken tree limbs. In one case, a line was ripped clean off the back wall of a house by an 80-foot oak blown over by the wind, which landed in between two homes with a horrific crash and thud, crushing an unoccupied SUV.

Darrell Clark, a 56-year-old general foreman for CSR, said the backyard lines on Harvard Street — common in northern New Jersey’s mature suburbs — made restoring power a little tricky because of access issues, though the problem isn’t unique to Garden State neighborhoods.

“We’re used to that,” said Clark, a retired supervisor for Alabama Power Company, one of that state’s biggest utilities. “We have a lot of that in Alabama.”

Clark said this was the third major storm zone he had been to this summer to help restore power.

“I’ve been to Michigan, went to Oklahoma three weeks ago, and then came up here Wednesday,” said Clark, who lives in Clanton, Alabama, near Birmingham. “CSR’s kind of like a brokerage company. When somebody like PSE&G gets hit by a hurricane, they know they can call CSR and say, ‘I need 50 crews.’ CSR’s got contacts for all these contractors, so they sent all these crews into Jersey.”

Clark and other out-of-staters weren’t around for last week’s New Jersey heat wave that Isaias seemed to blow away, and he and others said they liked the climate in these parts.

“It’s a lot nicer weather up here than in Alabama — cooler, not as humid,” he said. Told it was in the 90s with high humidity last week, he said, “That’s the way it is all the time in Alabama.”

Clark had a harder time with the traffic than Jones and Broomfield, the Georgia linemen.

“I guess because I don’t know where I’m going, you know,” said Clark, who drove up in a rental car, not a heavy truck. “I’m sitting there driving, watching the GPS the whole time because I’m lost. And the people drive fast. They will run over you here.”

“But the people that I’ve met are nice,” he added.

Carlos Aguilera was among a group of lineman for Amp Electric.

“We drive the main road,” he joked, referring to the 1968 Glen Campbell hit, “Witchita Lineman.”

Aguilera, who is from Seguin, Texas, near San Antonio, was on his first trip to New Jersey, a “beautiful, green” state with nice weather compared to what he’s used to in Texas.

“People are very nice, friendly,” he said. “The customers have also been very polite and respectful with us.”

Aguilera said New Jerseyans had welcomed him and his visiting coworkers as first responders in an emergency, not like scapegoats for a costly or inconvenient calamity, the more typical reception from customers in an outage.

“Usually, the police officers and the firemen are the heroes,” he said. “The customers look at us like, ‘Hurry up and get us back our power.’”

“I had a wonderful experience,” Aguilera said of the trip. “My reason for coming here was so unfortunate, because the hurricane does devastate people’s homes and affects people’s lives. But thank God we can come out here, help people get back their power, get their lights running again, and then go home and feel gratified that we did something good for the community.”

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