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Thursday, January 2,2014

‘Goddamn hero’

Out in the field with BWL linemen on day six

by Andy Balaskovitz
Austen Helvey started working for the Lansing Board of Water and Light as a journeyman lineman three weeks ago. Six days after the ice storm hit Lansing, he and three other crew members had “turned” four major circuits in the area, restoring power to approximately 4,000 people.

The 16-hour shifts were piling up, and he couldn’t help comparing his experience with other disaster-stricken areas where he’s worked. That includes cleanup after hurricanes Sandy of 2012 and Ike and Gustav of 2008.

“It’s comparable, if not more damage,” Helvey, 27, said in comparison to Sandy, the devastating superstorm that reaped havoc on the East Coast. “Ice is probably the worst for power lines.”

Helvey was near the intersection of West Willow Highway and Elmwood Road early Friday afternoon restoring power with fellow BWL employees. BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark was giving interviews nearby with local media, explaining how the restoration process works.

Helvey said the crews’ biggest challenge are downed lines in residents’ backyards. Sometimes they visit the same site three or four times, depending on the damage. Helvey said he lost power at his Magnolia Avenue home for two days.

Helvey, was working Friday with fellow BWL lineman Archie Emmons, who still didn’t have power at his home near Mt. Hope Avenue and Aurelius Road. Emmons, 40, was lamenting missing his son’s 6th birthday that day, as well as Christmas.

“You wake up cold, work 16 hours, go back to sleep, do it over again,” said Emmons, who has been with the utility since 2000. The crews refer to each other as “goddamn hero,” which Emmons and Helvey smile is an inside joke based off a YouTube video.

“We’re upbeat, happy we’re getting everyone back on,” Emmons said when asked about his attitude. “At the beginning it was a little daunting.”

Helvey said that by day six, the line crews had set into a routine: “We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The line crews, unlike city and utility officials, have been unanimously praised for their efforts to restore power back to 40 percent of BWL’s customers. Some have reported rounds of applause when they enter restaurants. But they are also not tone deaf to the chorus of complaints about BWL’s response to the storm, which fall largely on BWL and city administrators.

“I understand people are frustrated,” Helvey said. “We are doing everything we can.”

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