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After Washington's snowstorms, linemen brave elements to restore power

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A08

Power company lineman Brian Miles had on his yellow rubber sleeves to guard against electrocution, his yellow hard hat to guard against falling objects, and as he raised his repair bucket into the gusty wind, swaying evergreens and tangle of utility wires, his head was on a swivel.

He looked up, down, this way and that as he steered the bucket toward the tree limb that had fallen on the utility lines that knocked out power in a Montgomery County subdivision. Most of the lines were probably dead, but a lineman still has to know exactly where he is at all times. It takes but one errant touch to make contact with catastrophe.

But on Thursday, despite the wind and the wires, Miles maneuvered the Pepco repair bucket at the end of a 42-foot boom, cut free the broken limb and restored power to six homes along Marseille Drive, near Potomac. It was a small fix amid the tens of thousands of restored outages across the region after recent back-to-back snowstorms.

As the Washington area dug out of this week's blizzard on Thursday, an army of bleary-eyed linemen and other utility workers battled wind, snowdrifts and exhaustion to restore power to the thousands who had lost it -- in some cases for more than a week.

The huge swaths of Pepco outages at the peak of the two storms had mostly been reversed by Thursday, officials said, and work crews were down to handling so-called "single no currents," or isolated, individual outages.

Such were the cases being handled by the two Pepco "trouble" men -- Miles, 50, of Rockville, a senior line mechanic and 31-year veteran, and Allan Cooper, 52, of Baltimore, a senior overhead lineman who has been on the job 32 years.

It had been a harrowing few days, the men said. Almost zero visibility in the blizzard. "You couldn't see 20 feet in front of you," Cooper said. "It was bad."

"I'm 6-foot-5," Miles said, "and when the snow is up to my crotch, that's deep."

Both men said the work was tiring, aggravating and, Miles said, "hard on the family."

"I haven't been home in 10 days," Cooper said. "I've worked 16-hour days for the last 10 days."

Still, there are good moments. "If I didn't get satisfaction, I wouldn't be doing it all this time," Cooper said.

For hours Thursday they wended their way through snowy neighborhoods, seeking a wire down here, a branch down there.

In a Rockville subdivision, the men restored power to a home where a tree limb had fallen and taken down the wires in the front yard. The men removed the branch and restrung the wire.

The occupant said she had been without power for eight days and was delighted to have it back.

"This is one customer" getting restored, Miles said. "If there were 1,300" out, "now there are 1,299."

As he spoke he was removing the thick rubber sleeves and other safety equipment he wore to protect him. The work is "extremely dangerous," Miles said.

Cooper said he needed a knee replacement after a 40-foot fall from a utility pole in 1994.

"There's no room for mistakes whatsoever," Miles said. "You make one wrong move, you could get a serious injury," or worse. "You have to know all the time where you are in relationship to everything else. For the most part, you have to be fearless."

And "you have to focus," he said. "You touch the wrong thing, or two wrong things at the right time, it could be catastrophic."

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