NPU crews continue work in Virgin Islands to restore power

Norwich — Several linemen at Norwich Public Utilities are scrambling to make hectic travel plans this time of year, driving and catching flights, but while their mission is a lot different than the goal of sharing holiday cheer with family and friends, the feelings of holiday spirit is just as strong.

“This is definitely one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” NPU Assistant General Manager Chris LaRose said of the two weeks he and NPU linemen Mike Sumner and Tom Holmes spent in the U.S. Virgin Islands in October, restoring power to storm-ravaged St. Thomas. “Many will go months without having power, and just to be able to restore power is just a great experience.”

LaRose and his crew worked on St. Thomas from Oct. 15 to 29. Literally every utility pole was damaged or snapped by hurricanes Irma and Maria this fall. They were the first in a relay race of NPU mutual aid assistance to the U.S. Virgin Islands under the supervision of the Northeast Public Power Association.

NPU linemen Jay Marshall and Will Bowman traveled there on Oct. 29, relieving the first three and returned this week. Linemen Will Maxeiner and Graham Andruskiewicz, who delivered an NPU digger derrick, which is used to set and straighten utility poles, to Ft. Lauderdale in early November to be transported by barge to the islands, arrived in St. Thomas Nov. 11 and are expected to return sometime between Nov. 26 and Dec. 11, NPU spokesman Chris Riley said.

Linemen Scott Smith and Elier Alvarado departed on Friday for St. Thomas to relieve Marshall and Bowman. Smith and Alvarado are expected to be in St. Thomas until mid-December. And linemen Jeff Burgess and Tony Rizzi are scheduled to depart Dec. 2 to replace Maxeiner and Andruskiewicz and will return in mid-December.

While NPU is committed to the public power association mutual aid system, local utility officials first assess whether Norwich’s own response needs are met before sending personnel and equipment elsewhere, Riley said. And other public power companies are ready to assist Norwich if a big storm hits.

Following the surprise windstorm that hit southeastern Connecticut on Oct. 29, NPU brought in crews from Massachusetts and New York to help clean up and restore power, LaRose said.

“Mutual aid is great for the utility,” he said. “We brought in mutual aid for the storm of a couple weeks ago. It’s great when we reciprocate, making relationships with linemen of other utilities. If we run into a storm as big as this, it’s paying it forward. Also, the linemen get a great satisfaction out of helping people in need. There’s no better satisfaction than turning on power for people. The people of St. Thomas were patient, and extremely grateful.”

LaRose said the entire operation is being coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. NPU will bill the U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Public Power Authority for staff and equipment costs, which will be reimbursed by FEMA.

LaRose, Sumner and Holmes spent most of their time working in the town of Tutu on St. Thomas. Their two weeks there was no holiday or vacation. Crews wore heavy insulated clothing, work boots, heavy rubber gloves and hard hats to work in 90-degree heat and humidity. They worked 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Linemen hacked their way through a jungle of downed trees and utility poles, with debris strewn across their paths. And every time they dug a hole or moved a rock, they had to be wary of hand-sized tarantulas and dog-sized iguanas scurrying about.

“It rained every day while we were there,” LaRose said. “When the rain happened, it was like air conditioning, and as soon as it stopped, it felt 10 times hotter. Everything just steamed up.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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