IOWA DERECHO 2020

Alliant Energy linemen put in 18-hour days to restore power

'It's very hazardous work'

Line foreman Gary Henry walks back to his truck to inspect lines further down Winslow Road in Marion to see what else he
Line foreman Gary Henry walks back to his truck to inspect lines further down Winslow Road in Marion to see what else he and his crew will need to do to restore power to the area on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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Gary Henry, a line foreman for Alliant Energy rode out last week’s derecho in a temporary job shack.

After the storm settled down, Henry walked across the street from the shack and started setting up cones and began to survey the damage.

“It was eerily silent at that point,” he recalled.

Henry, who has been with the company for almost three decades and has experienced two hurricanes, said last week’s storm was worse than a hurricane.

“This is the worst damn thing I’ve ever seen,” Henry said. “This is at least as bad as any hurricane I’ve seen, if not worse.”

Alliant, the main provider of electricity to Linn County, and other utilities have had various crews working around the clock for the past week to repair or restore downed lines throughout the Eastern Iowa area.

Heading into Monday evening, more than 42,000 residents in Linn and Johnson counties were without power.

As of 5 p.m. Monday, 41,629 of Alliant’s 97,603 Linn County customers and 222 of its 9,827 Johnson County customers did not have power.

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MidAmerican Energy said that as of 5 p.m. only 14 of its Iowa City customers still were without power.

Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative reported that 97 percent of its members had power as of 5 p.m., Monday. In Linn County, 646 of its 14,261 customers were without power, as were 19 of its 15,638 Johnson County customers.

In a Monday evening news release, Linn County REC said scattered outages remain throughout its system, with the highest concentration in the rural Toddville, Palo and Center Point areas.

Henry, the Alliant foreman, said when a big storm hits, it takes a careful, but quick strategy to get an entire community’s lights back on.

He said getting hospitals, grocery stores and gas stations’ power restored at the beginning was the most important.

“Those can be very critical as we know,” he said. “After that is when we started tackling going into the neighborhoods.”

Before getting any power restored, however, crews have to patrol the whole “system,” Henry said. He said uprooted trees have the potential to trip a transformer.

“It’s basically like if you have a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and you just got it together, but then someone comes and hits it and it breaks,” he said. “It’s trying to put that back together.”

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The crews have to follow many safety procedures as repairing broken power lines can be dangerous. It becomes even tougher when workers are working 18 hours at a time.

“It’s very hazardous work,” Henry said. “It can be even more difficult with a lack of sleep. You got to stay focused. The rules don’t go away when you’re tired.

“And everyone has to be on the same page. If one person gets hurt, none of this is worth it.”

On Monday morning, Henry and his crew worked on lines on Winslow Road in north Marion. The 11-person crew was part of 2,000 people working on replacing power lines, with another 400 people coming into the area on Monday, according to Alliant Energy Vice President of Business Development Joel Schmidt.

During a Monday morning news conference in Cedar Rapids, Schmidt said 1,300 workers are in Cedar Rapids alone.

At a separate news conference on Monday evening, Terry Kouba, senior vice president of utility operations at Alliant, said the utility is doing everything possible to restore service to 90 percent of its customers by the end of the day on Tuesday.

“We are working day and night to make power available faster,” Kouba said. “We are in the fourth quarter of this event. If you don’t see us in your neighborhood, it doesn’t mean we aren’t working on restoring your power.”

Kouba said Alliant is replacing 2,500 downed poles from the storm, which is a job typically done in eight months for the company but is instead being done in a matter of weeks.

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As Alliant linemen have been working up to 18-hour days for the past week in the August heat, many of them are without power in their own residences when they go home.

Denver Lumberry, an Alliant lineman, said he’s been going home to the same conditions as a lot of the customers he serves.

Lumberry had a tree land on his house in Marion and a pipe in his sink busted, causing some extra water damage.

“But that keeps me going every day,” Lumberry said. “I go home, eat, shower and try to wind down a little and go to bed. I’ve had about three hours of sleep every night for the past week.”

Another lineman, Reid DeSotel, who on Monday was working on fixing a broken crossarm on a utility pole, said he’s lucky to get more than four hours of sleep.

“I get the generator fueled up, eat and shower and then the next morning, I get it fueled up again, eat and I get back to work,” DeSotel said.

But the utility workers aren’t without community support. As the crew was working, a woman from the community dropped off some water, Gatorade and snacks. Later, a family rode by on their bikes and yelled “thank you” to the Alliant workers.

Henry said instances of community support have been very common the past week as the crew works.

“When Alliant pulls up, people get excited in the neighborhood,” Henry said. “I don’t even want to get lunch because I want to get them power. The community has been great and surprisingly understanding.”

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Some residents in Cedar Rapids and Marion have reported getting power back only to lose it again hours later. Henry said one reason that happens is because, as power is moved from one down substation to another working one, the system can overload before the broken substation is back online.

“Everything in this network is tied together. You can only push it so far,” he said. “You can overload it. Same thing as overloading a circuit in a house.”

He added that some of what utility workers are doing are temporary fixes to restore power for now. He said first and foremost, the crews have to make sure everything is safe.

“We can get back to some of those fixes when the dust settles,” Henry said. “You might have a temporary fix for five to six months. It’s quite possible some people could lose power for the short term again later once we get back to some of those.”

Gazette reporter Marissa Payne contributed to this report.

Comments: (319) 398-8255; gage.miskimen@thegazette.com

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