Local lineman returns from Sandy relief work as a ‘rock star’
Ryan Summerlin November 23, 2012
Whoever thinks New Yorkers are unfriendly clearly hasn’t ever done post-superstorm relief work in the Empire State.
When NV Energy lineman Chris Laux arrived at the John F. Kennedy International Airport Monday, Nov. 5, he had no idea how long he’d be in New York or even where he’d be stationed. What the region looked like a few days after superstorm Sandy dissipated, leaving a wake of destruction throughout the East Coast, was another unknown.
Laux, a South Lake Tahoe resident who works for the Nevada-based energy company, had never seen so many linemen mobilized before. Linemen – powerline technicians who build and maintain electric power facilities – don’t often get much recognition for their work, and when they do it’s more likely to be negative. Yet it’s a job essential to the nation’s power grid.
“There’s a running joke in the lineman trade – when people are out of power for two or three hours, they hate you. When they’re out of power for two to three days, they love you,” Laux said.
Sandy lumbered onshore Oct. 29, leaving millions of people without power for days or even weeks. So when Laux and the rest of the 18-person NV Energy crew got off the Air Force transport planes with their company line trucks on Nov. 5, they were treated like heroes.
“They were really blown away that we were from Nevada. It was like the movies. People were baking us pies, people were basically paying for our meals. I had so much food in my truck it was ridiculous. They were so grateful,” Laux said.
His girlfriend, Jennifer Lenik, calls him a hero, but Laux said he was there just to do a job. After the group arrived Monday, they spent the next 11 days trying to heat up and plug in as many people as they could. With trees and debris cluttering the streets, it was an environment of “controlled chaos,” Laux said.
To complicate matters, the NV Energy employees were driving their 4,700-pound, 28-foot long line trucks. Laux said the crew would creep under parkway bridges designed for cars and small trucks with only inches to spare.
Nevada has two area codes. Long Island City, New York has four. That kind of population density makes travel difficult even during normal times, and trying to navigate post-Sandy roads with West Coast-sized trucks was almost impossible, Laux said.
“The devastation, the outages were just insane. When there’s a mass power outage like that, you heat up massive amounts of people. But when we got there, there were still 850,000 people out in that area,” Laux said.
In order to deal with the large-scale blackouts, the Long Island Power Authority called upon other electric companies like NV Energy in the Edison Electric Institute to help. There’s a community among the power utilities that doesn’t exist between most other corporations, NV Energy spokesman Karl Walquist said. It’s as if Shell or Exxon Mobile went to BP’s aid after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Laux attributes the mutual assistance program to the birth of the lineman trade where the technicians – called boomers –traveled the country plugging people into the growing grid.
“It evolved through that – along the lines of the lineman. Whenever there’s a problem, they go and fix it. And the utilities stepped up to that too. The dedication to the industry has been there since day one,” he said.
About 62,000 employees – many of whom were lineman like Laux who worked a 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. shift for almost two weeks – flocked to the east to help with repairs, according to Walquist. It’s physically and mentally draining, especially since many of the workers are repairing a foreign system, Laux said.
Hearing Laux talk about his work is like listening to a firefighter who just saved a burning neighborhood: his pride in his job and in the history of the trade is evident. Laux returned to the South Shore about a week ago, and he said he’s still decompressing from his time in New York.
“I don’t like being in the limelight. I do my job and that’s what I do. At the end of the day we provide a service. It’s not a glorified road. It’s never sunny, it’s always raining or snowing. Linemen as a whole are pretty humble people, but it’s one of the most valuable services out there. The day-to-day stuff, it’s just what we do. So to have all these people come up to you, it’s like being a rock star,” he said.