Local utility aids Sandy recovery

Clark Public Utilities' crew back home after emotional, exhausting 15-day tour

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Uprooted homes. Hollowed-out lives. Misery on a staggering scale.

Rick Thompson, construction maintenance superintendent for Clark Public Utilities, absorbed all of it as part of an 11-member crew that swept into New Jersey to help restore power on the East Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

"The human toll … We were up close and personal with it," he said Friday, recounting his crew's exhausting work and highly emotional experiences after returning home late Thursday night. "We're happy to have done what we could do, but they've got a long road. It's a mess … we get to leave, but they're still there, and they're going to be living it for a while."

Eleven Clark Public Utilities employees, including Thompson, joined line workers from other regional utilities to assist FirstEnergy, an electric company serving 6 million customers in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, stretching from the Ohio-Indiana border to the New Jersey shore.

Thompson and his crew worked specifically with a subsidiary of FirstEnergy -- Jersey Central Power & Light -- to restore electricity to homes by repairing countless power lines and broken poles.

"There was a lot of line down," Thompson said. "It was a matter of putting it back up. It was widespread. The scale of it was unbelievable. It would be like having all of the wiring in Clark County down."

Thompson and his crew spent 15 days on the East Coast, working 16 to 18 hours daily.

They deployed bucket and digger trucks to set poles and rewire systems, Thompson said. They saw power lines split by trees and spots where houses once rose. "People have lost, in some cases, everything," Thompson said. The number of people they helped ranged in the thousands.

At one point, a woman to whom they'd restored power "came out and gave me a bear hug, and she was crying," Thompson said. "Her tears were on my neck. She wouldn't let go of me."

And people whose lives were wrecked still managed to brew coffee and deliver food to crew members, Thompson said. "The people were incredible."

It wasn't the first time Clark Public Utilities has helped other agencies to restore power. It has mutual aid agreements with other utilities. Last winter, for example, Clark Public Utilities dispatched workers to Skamania County, and the utility has aided similar efforts in Portland, according to officials.

Thompson has spent nearly 35 years in the utility industry -- roughly six of those with Clark Public Utilities -- so, as he put it, "I've seen a lot of stuff."

However, he added, he's "never seen anything on this scale."

Thompson is back home now in Vancouver, exhausted and trying to get some sleep. But it's clear the memories of his work on the East Coast will linger for some time.

"It was just humbling and sobering," he said, "and I just feel for those people, because they're going to live it for quite a while."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.