After learning about the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma, Lake Region Electric Cooperative lineworkers Josh Haus, Lucas Bakken, Jed Evenson, and Ethan Kern knew they wanted to help.
On Sunday, September 10th the group of four joined up with 10 other lineworkers from Minnesota electric cooperatives and started the trip southward. “Our drive down went pretty well. We stopped in Missouri first, got up the next day, and made it to Mississippi. We talked to the co-op throughout that time and got a plan ready,” explains Josh Haus. “By the time we hit Florida though, the traffic was unbelievable. What was supposed to be a 7-hour drive that day turned into a 14-hour drive.”
By the time the guys arrived at their destination, Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC) in Live Oak, Florida, it was already evening. That first night they set right to work, starting Tuesday around 5:30 p.m.
Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative, located in the northern part of Florida, maintains over 4,300 miles of distribution lines. Out of 26,000 SVEC customers, an estimated 23,000 were without power in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “By the time we left a week later, power on their system was 98 percent restored. The only people who still didn’t have power were those who needed electric work done,” says Haus.
Much of the damage the Lake Region crew helped repair in Florida is similar to the damage Minnesota lineworkers can encounter here after 70-mile-per-hour straight-line winds blow through. The main difference was the widespread nature of the damage, which spanned SVEC’s entire system.
A representative from SVEC worked with each volunteer crew, showing them where to start working next and bringing them from location to location. The lineworkers cut trees, replaced broken poles, and put up a substantial amount of wire. Each morning they would arrive at the co-op by 6 a.m. to start off their 16-hour work days.
“The greatest challenge for me was the heat and humidity we were working in,” acknowledges Jed Evenson. “Most days it was around 90 to 95 degrees with 100 percent humidity. By the end of the week, you almost started to get used to it.” The lineworkers say they were also wary of some of Florida’s unique threats they were warned about when they first arrived. Venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, and even alligators can pose a threat to lineworkers while out on the job.
“I had never ventured outside of Lake Region’s system to work on a storm before, so this was quite an experience,” Evenson says. “Still, I would definitely do something like this again.”
The long hours and the heat were countered by the incredible kindness the lineworkers say they experienced from both SVEC employees and customers. “Everybody we met down there was very nice and very appreciative,” says Ethan Kern. “Even when we were still on our way driving to Florida, we had people giving us the thumbs up in the slow traffic areas. People would roll their windows down and talk to us.”
Haus adds, “Once we were there working, people would come out and bring us bottles of water or Cokes. One farmer even brought us some peanuts from his peanut field that he had harvested last year. The locals were so appreciative of what we were doing.”
The guys say they were also impressed with the unbelievable hospitality they received from SVEC. When they arrived at the co-op each morning, a full breakfast was served for the approximately 150 people working on the hurricane restoration effort. Lunches were packed for the lineworkers to eat out on the job sites, and dinner was ready for them when they returned late in the evening.
After a full week in Florida, the Minnesota crew arrived back home on Thursday, September 21st. The lineworkers said they were excited to get back to their families, sleep in their own beds, and catch up on projects back home. They expressed their thankfulness for the opportunity to help people in need, unanimously agreeing that, “It’s good to go, but also so good to get back.”