UPDATED 11:45 a.m., 10.31.12:
CPS Energy crews originally requested by Dominion Power in Virginia are being diverted to Jackson, NJ to assist First Energy. Superstorm Sandy made an almost direct hit on Jackson, and almost one million customers are without power. Major damage to transmission lines, cell towers and distribution structures are reported in the area.
CPS Energy crews spent Tuesday night outside of Baton Rouge and continued their trip this morning, heading towards Georgia enroute to New Jersey.
At 9 a.m. sharp, the caravan rolled out of the East Side Service Center: 26 CPS Energy vehicles carrying 51 veteran crew members, all headed to Richmond, VA.
There they’ll join crews from as far away as California and Canada, all converging to help get the lights back on for tens of thousands of residents slammed by Hurricane Sandy.
At least 117,000 customers of Dominion Virginia Power were without power Tuesday morning, and officials expect that number to rise after gale-force winds and driving rains lashed the state as the storm moved northward.
It will take several days to completely restore power, said officials, even with crews from around the country working seven days a week to get it back on.
That’s not uncommon after major storms.
“It will take three or four days just to completely assess the damage,” said Dennis Sutter, a construction manager with CPS Energy, and one of two storm leaders. Sutter most recently helped restore power after Hurricane Ike in Liberty and Houston.
Then officials will prioritize the work to be done, he said. Main feeder circuits will likely be first on the list, since they serve the most number of customers, such as large subdivisions and commercial areas.
Sutter, who’s been with CPS Energy for 36 years, and Eric Fassett, the other storm leader and a 28-year-veteran of the utility, said they expect downed poles and trees will be the bulk of the damage.
That means a painstaking effort to clear debris, reset poles, restring wires, then test everything before reconnecting power. The job will be a massive one.
CPS Energy’s volunteer crew includes a dozen linemen, 18 line trainees, and 6 line foremen, along with construction managers, digger operators, and other support personnel.
Fassett, who was part of the crew CPS Energy sent to Florida after Ivan and to Alabama after Jeanne, said when they arrive at the staging area in Richmond, they’ll first get a thorough safety briefing before being given an assignment.
This is the farthest north CPS Energy crews have gone to help. In the past, crews have been dispatched to other parts of Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Alabama.
“Getting prepared for the cold is one of our biggest challenges, so we have winter gear and have winterized the trucks,” Fassett said. “The other challenge will be finding enough fuel along the route for all of our vehicles.”
Those behemoth trucks only get about 5-6 miles per gallon, Sutter said, so they’ll have to stop and fuel up all 26 vehicles every four hours. They should arrive in Richmond late Thursday, and will report to work Friday morning.
The crews will likely spend two weeks working to restore power, but could stay in Richmond for as long as 21 days, Sutter said.
“We’ll see, based on the mental and physical condition of the men,’ he said. ‘They’ll be working 16 hour days, seven days a week.”
It helps, Sutter said, that many linemen know their brethren from other utilities from participating in lineman rodeos. CPS Energy teams, in fact, participated in the 29th Annual International Lineman’s Rodeo just two weeks ago in Bonner Springs, Kansas.
He looked at his watch — time to head out.
Sutter promised the crew would send photos and updates when possible — updates we’ll pass along to our customers. You can check out photos of the crew gearing up and heading out on our Flickr page.