In Florida, linemen as rock stars

A day on the job restoring electricity with the most popular guys in post-hurricane Florida.

Forget Shaq Daddy or the commander of the space shuttle Discovery. The most celebrated person in Florida right now is Terry Thorson.

When he arrives, people praise the Lord, shower him with food and drinks, and promise to name their next child after him.

Well, maybe not the last bit. But Mr. Thorson and others like him are going street by street, restoring electrical power to 242,000 residents along the Florida Panhandle who lost their power in hurricane Dennis. And to see the reaction to the arrival of his Gulf Power bucket truck is to believe he is a superstar.

"People come running out of their houses and into the street when they see us. It's kinda like being in a Fourth of July parade," says the lineman with Pensacola-based Gulf Power.

In 15 years on the job, Thorson has been through half a dozen hurricanes and understands firsthand the desperation that people feel when air conditioners go out and freezers shut off. So he doesn't mind the 16-hour days during "storm duty," the 100-degree heat, or even the swarming mosquitoes.

"Electricity is something everyone depends on and takes for granted, until it's off," he says, removing his hard hat and wiping sweat from his brow. "We like to try to get it on as quickly as possible because we understand what they're going through. We have to go home to a hot house as well."

He and his partner, Rodney Brown, have just arrived on Bison Street in northwest Pensacola. They have been methodically working their way out from a nearby substation since Dennis hit landfall Sunday afternoon and it's too earlier in the process for monotony to set in.

Gulf Power officials expect 95 percent of their customers to be back on by Monday and have 1,400 of their own linemen and 3,400 workers from utilities around the Southeast helping in the restoration effort.

Marc Harper and his family are gathered together under a large live oak tree in their front yard, a well-stocked cooler and portable radio on a picnic table nearby. "Oh my gosh, are we glad to see you," he belts out as the utility workers pass by. Their power was out for weeks after last year's Hurricane Ivan, versus days for Dennis, yet Mr. Harper says the worst part of being without electricity this time around is the stifling mid-July heat. "It's miserable trying to sleep."

But before Mr. Brown can get to work on the Bison Street line, he must ground the power line to avoid any backfeed from the many generators that are tapping into it. Then the tree-trimming crew gets to work to remove big branches that fell across the line.

About 20 minutes later, Brown is able to climb back into the utility truck's bucket and maneuver he way to the trouble spot.

He says his wife and two small children have just returned from Birmingham where they fled for the storm, and he is anxious to see them when he gets off his 16-hour shift. But he doesn't allow himself to think about these kinds of things when he's working. "You've got to have your head in the game, because something could go wrong at any moment."

Thorson nods in agreement. 7,200 volts of electricity is enough to keep anyone on his toes. "Adrenaline is a big part of the job initially because the situation is so drastic for everyone," he says, "but it does become a grind. Fatigue sets in and that's when you have to pay attention to detail."

Their schedule, at least for another week, will be 16 hours on and eight hours off. That allows for a quick shower and a "Hi" and "Good night" to their families before heading to bed.

But the long hours and grueling conditions don't matter much to these two, who often travel to other storm-ravaged parts of the country to pitch in. Ice in Baltimore, flooding in Ohio. "Other cities love to see our crews roll in. They are known nationwide for their work," says Richard Adams, a Gulf Power spokesman. "I guess it's because they get so much practice."

In fact, most linemen consider themselves not just skilled laborers, but craftsmen. Brown says he was trained as an electrician, but his "dream job" was working for Gulf Power.

Thorson echoes that sentiment: "Growing up as a child, I used to see the linemen working overhead and I always admired them. I wanted to be one of those who climbed those poles and helped people. So when the opportunity came along, I took it."

Having both been raised in the storm-prone Pensacola area, they understood from an early age how important the job was. On ordinary days, they admit the job can get boring and repetitive, but the work they do after hurricanes makes the slow times worth while.

"Storms take all that away and make the job new and different," says Thorson. "And it becomes personal, because it affects you and everybody you know."

Further up the road, Joe Grenier and his neighbor are on his porch grilling hamburgers as they watch Thorson and Brown close the switches on their power line and prepare to make about 300 more residents "hot."

Mr. Grenier says his secret to staying comfortable without power has been to "try not to think about being hot - and take a lot of cold showers." Just then the power clicked on and he gave out a little smile.

"My parents are inside fixing to turn on the AC," he says, "and I'm fixing to walk across the street and thank Gulf Power."

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