CPS Energy crews are coming home.
The more than two dozen linemen, vehicle mechanics and radio communications experts who volunteered to make the trek up north to help restore power after superstorm Sandy have begun their journey back home today, after being released by the host utility.
Central Jersey Power & Light says another 1,600 out-of-state utility workers are headed to the state to continue restoration efforts.
CPS Energy crews are expected to arrive home to San Antonio Monday night.
When they hit the road on Oct. 30, the 26-truck caravan was first headed to Virginia, at the behest of Dominion Power. But it soon became apparent that more help was needed farther north, and the decision was made to reroute them — all the way to New Jersey. It would be the farthest that CPS Energy crews have traveled following a storm.
“We stopped to pick up some extra clothes on the way,” said Clinton Pierce, a 21-year veteran linemen who volunteered to head north.
He spoke Wednesday during a break from work he was doing at the top of an electrical pole near Old Bridge, New Jersey, as a fierce Nor’easter blew in, bringing snow and high winds.
He said crews would work through the storm, but would knock off as darkness approached. They worked through Thursday’s wind and snow, too.
Earlier in the week, the CPS Energy crew helped repair circuits on the aptly-named Texas Road substation, which restored power to almost 10,000 residents.
“Now we’re doing mostly ‘trouble orders,'” Pierce said, restoring power to small handfuls of homes at a time.
It’s painstaking and dangerous work, but one CPS Energy linemen are well-trained to do.
It can take 10-15 years of training before becoming a journeyman lineman, said Fred James, senior vice-president of energy delivery services. CPS Energy employs 141 linemen, as well as 121 trainees.
“We grow our own here,” said James. “We don’t hire journeymen from outside.”
CPS Energy linemen work on energized lines, meaning the power is still flowing through them. Doing so is more dangerous, but it means fewer outages for customers.
James praised the culture of safety and excellence among linemen at CPS Energy.
“They really love what they’re doing, and they’re extremely proud of what they do,” he said.
And while linemen often work in anonymity, they’ve practically become rock stars in New Jersey.
“People have been so nice,” said Pierce, 39. “They’re constantly bringing us food and coffee, and thanking us for our work.”
Every day on CPS Energy’s Facebook page, the thanks of grateful New Jerseyans are mingled with those from San Antonio, proud of the work their hometown linemen are doing.
“The boys from CPS came and installed two new beautiful utility poles a block from our home to replace those that Sandy spanned,” wrote Adam Perlow of Marlboro on Wednesday. “The next day we had 5 trucks come and finish the job and get our power back up. Thank you CPS!!!”
One post, from a high school student named Kieffer Braisted, went viral, picking up more than 26,000 “likes” as it ricocheted through cyberspace.
He wrote: “Hey guys. I’m from Marlboro, NJ and while I was riding my bike home today, I saw one of your trucks at the corner of my street. I proceeded to get closer and saw that it was from Texas. I would like, on behalf of everyone here in Marlboro and the state of NJ, to say thank you to you guys for coming all this way to help out. Many of us now (including me) have power due to your hard work, and I am very grateful that your employees were willing to take the trip. God bless you all.”
Hundreds of people responded to Kieffer, including relatives of those working 16-hour days to restore power, in a state far from home.
Wrote Vivian Robles: “I really love seeing all of these posts from the people of New Jersey!! I really didn’t know what to expect when my brother traveled up there with CPS to help with this tragedy, but they are getting so much love and thanks that it’s almost overwhelming!! Hopefully more people have power soon!! We as the family members left behind miss them soo much, but this kind of makes it all ok!!”
CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby, in his recent thank you message to the storm team, also recognized those who remained in San Antonio and took on extra duties while their co-workers were away: “I thank those of you who made it possible for CPS Energy to support restoration efforts in New Jersey.”
For Pierce, the satisfaction he gets from helping people, whether in New Jersey or in San Antonio, is what keeps him going.
“I love it,” he said. “I love my job.”