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Utility workers face tasks monumental and mundane

Associated Press Modified: November 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm •  Published: November 5, 2012

The staging area was set up with the help of 10 logistics experts from Florida Power & Light who know a thing or two about hurricanes. It operates like a giant outdoor assembly line. Workers climb into 800 trucks parked at the site that have been fueled overnight with tanker trucks brought in from Pennsylvania. They pick up their instructions and a PSE&G worker called a "bird dog" that knows the service territory.

They proceed in two columns past pallets stacked with parts and equipment and pick up what they need for the day — wire, insulators, brackets — and bagged lunches. Then they head off for 16 hours of line work.

At a site in Allendale, N.J., one huge tree had taken town five utility poles and 11 sets of wire. A Centerpoint Energy team of 15 workers and 8 trucks — one with a Texas flag flying from its crane — labored much of the day and into the night digging holes for the poles, raising them, and hanging new wire.

Shane Pittman, a Centerpoint worker from Angleton, Texas, arrived with his crew on Oct. 29. Other than the number of trees and the cold — it was the first hurricane cleanup he had done that required winter clothing — he said it was just like back home.

PSE&G said it is using 4,000 out-of-state workers to erect at least 1,000 new poles in its service territory. As of Monday, the company had restored service to 1.3 million of the 1.7 million who lost power in its service territory. It has also restored power to 78 percent of the gas stations in its region, which should ease the long lines seen at stations that had both power and fuel.

The Duke Energy team in Manhattan spent its first day climbing under streets on the West Side, pumping water out of vaults and disconnecting switches that were ruined by the flooding. After ConEd restored power to the networks that serve Lower Manhattan, the Duke team visited customers who were still without power to determine if the utility needs to fix equipment or if the customer has a problem in the building that an electrician must address.

The substation in Hoboken was being worked over by a team of 40 that included local contractors and a team from Kansas City Power & Light.

The Hoboken substation was built in 1953, and it is powered with equipment that has been there ever since. There are no replacement parts for the bank of circuit breakers that manages the electricity's journey from 4 incoming lines to 13 outgoing ones. So the workers have had to pull these breakers out of their boxes and truck them to a machine shop in Connecticut that specializes in reconditioning old electrical equipment.

On a temporary work bench made out of plywood and a large white plastic crate, a team was taking apart sensors that measure electricity flowing though the equipment and trigger switches. Each part had to be taken apart wiped meticulously cleaned with cleaning spray, rags and brushes, and put back together.

A contractor was stuffed in a cinderblock control room on site with a voltage meter, testing each individual wire to make sure it was still good. A team of workers from KCP&L was poring over a diagram of the control panel of one of the station's transformers to make sure they had rewired it correctly.

At 10:30 Monday morning workers flipped the switch and reenergized the substation and power began to flow through 8 of the 13 circuits. Unfortunately for Hoboken customers, this is only a first step: While power is flowing from the substation into the local grid, PSE&G can only now start looking for problems in the wires, switches and transformers that deliver the power to residents — and send another crew out to fix it.

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