As Jeff Painter disembarked a charter plane in Westchester, N.Y., Oct. 28, the havoc of Superstorm Sandy was not as immediately prevalent as he had expected.
But within a few blocks, Painter saw downed trees and telephone poles from the window of the bus transporting him and three other Grass Valley Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) employees there to help repair those same downed power lines.
“What we saw immediately wasn’t even close to what we ended up seeing,” Painter said Friday, back home in Grass Valley.
Painter, along with fellow Grass Valley workers Mike Rubio, Darrell Webb and Armando Wilkins, were among 300 PG&E employees who traveled to the East Coast to help restore power to more than 23,000 customers through Con Edison and Long Island Power Authority in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to a company spokesperson.
At its peak, the storm knocked out power to 8.5 million homes and businesses in 21 states, the highest outage total ever.
The Edison Electric Institute, an industry group, estimates 67,000 workers from utilities and other firms in several states worked to restore power, but faced a huge volume of work. For example, New Jersey’s largest utility, Public Service Electric & Gas, had to cut down 41,000 trees, replace 2,500 poles and install 1,000 new transformers. At its peak, 77 percent of PSE&G’S 2.2 million customers lost power.
Painter and his crew mates tackled similar problems. They replaced and repaired electric wire, transformers and other equipment, and also cut and pruned fallen trees, he said. The worst damage he saw was in Brooklyn, where traversed block after block of downed trees and telephone poles.
But most of the damage in Brooklyn was from flooding, Painter said, describing endless blocks of homes with furniture stacked curbside, water damaged and awaiting pickup for disposal.
While the flood waters receded, leaving boats six blocks ashore and cars high centered on retaining walls, water remained in basements — where many of the home’s electrical panels are located, Painter said.
A week or two without power is, without question, a difficult and frustrating hardship. Food spoils in the fridges. No electricity also can mean no heat. And there’s the fire danger from relying on candles to see at night. In tall apartment buildings, no power means no elevator service, a serious problem for the infirm or elderly who can’t navigate stairs.
For those who rely on mobile phones for communication, it means no way to charge phones — and therefore no way to communicate with loved ones or emergency services.
“You would expect people to be upset because they have had no power for so long,” Painter said. “One thing about New Yorkers is how resilient they are. That much catastrophe and turmoil, it doesn’t slow them down. We were treated like gold by those customers.”
Word spread fast that the boys in blue trucks were from California, Painter said. They were greeted by clapping and cheers. Residents offered coffee, food and even places to sleep if they needed it.
“A lot of people called us heroes,” Painter said. “I wouldn’t say that, but it makes you feel proud. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The support helped Painter and his fellow Grass Valley PG&E workers plow through the fatigue of 16-hour days, he said.
“No matter which culture, they respected us,” Painter said, “It made you feel good at the end of a day.”
An Associated Press analysis of outage times from other big hurricanes and tropical storms suggests that, on the whole, the response to Sandy by utility companies, especially in hardest-hit New York and New Jersey, was typical — or even a little faster than elsewhere after other huge storms.
The Associated Press, with the assistance of Ventyx, a software company that helps utilities manage their grids, used U.S. Energy Department data to determine how many days it took to restore 95 percent of the peak number of customers left without power after major hurricanes since 2004, including Ivan, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Ike and Irene.
After Sandy, New York utilities restored power to at least 95 percent of customers 13 days after the peak number of outages was reported. New Jersey reached that same level in 11 days and West Virginia in 10 days.
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005 and Ike in 2008 all resulted in longer outages for customers in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Florida.
The longest stretch to 95 percent restoration since 2004 was Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, where local utilities had power restored to only three-quarters of their customers after 23 days before Hurricane Rita hit and caused additional outages.
However, determining the quality of a utility’s restoration efforts after an outage is difficult to do, experts say. That’s because every storm generates a unique cocktail of mayhem that differs from location to location.
Just because New York and New Jersey utilities restored power in a range that is normal by historical standards does not prove that all of the utilities in the region performed equally well, or that they performed better or worse than their peers responding to outages in other states, or that there isn’t plenty of room for improvement.
The fact that it has taken utilities roughly the same amount of time to restore the vast majority of customers as after similar-sized storms suggests that restoring power after an enormous weather event is simply a long, difficult process.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has defended the response of the utilities in his state, and perhaps for good reason. Sixty-five percent of New Jersey utility customers lost power, 2.6 million homes and businesses. Compared with other big storms, New Jersey’s utilities restored power to most customers in the shortest amount of time for a state with such a high percentage of outages. One measurement Painter touted was that none of PG&E’s visiting workers sustained injuries, he said.
“That’s impressive in an unfamiliar area with unfamiliar systems,” Painter said. “That is something to be real proud of.”
Painter returned home Wednesday to his wife and three kids. After his experiences with gracious people from a melting pot of cultures, he plans to return someday.
“I want to take my family there,” Painter said. “I had never been there, never thought about going there. But now that I’ve been there, I definitely want to go back.”
Associated Press contributed to this report. To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4236.