The Washington Post

For Canadian crews helping with power outages, glimpses of Washington life

Hydro One lineman crews from Canada carry ice to their trucks and prepare for the day on Fort Myer in Arlington after being called in to help with restoring power. (Jabin Botsford/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Barry Coyle got the call Sunday morning, at his home north of Toronto.

It was Canada Day, and he and his wife were expecting about 50 guests to come over and celebrate with a bonfire, bocce and some horseshoes.

Instead, Coyle, a manager at Toronto’s Hydro One utility company found himself mobilizing crews to bolt south to the Washington suburbs to repair power lines downed in last Friday’s powerful storm.

About 200 workers formed a convoy of more than 80 trucks, many with Canadian flags flying, and drove 12 hours to Virginia. There was a two-hour delay while waiting for clearance at the U.S. border in Buffalo (immigration agents brought out coffee and doughnuts to help pass the time). 

Once here, they became part of a brigade of 1,950 out-of-state workers assisting 3,500 employees from Dominion Power in a massive operation to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands across the state.

The Hydro One trucks were cleared to get onto the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, where the fleet parks overnight. The workers ate in a giant tent on base the night they arrived. About 10 p.m., buses took them to the Gaylord National hotel at National Harbor to sleep.

At 5:30 each morning, the buses take the workers back to the base, where their trucks and a big breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausages, muffins, and lots and lots of ice water awaits them. They grab box lunches and their assignments for the day. 

On Thursday afternoon, 11 men were working in Arlington County, where a large tree had crashed to the ground, taking two utility poles with it. The tree trunk measured six feet across.

While families watched them and occasionally brought out plates of cookies, the workers installed a new pole next to a splintered one, then scaled it to fix the wiring.

When they climbed down and pulled off their hard hats, slick with sweat and exhausted from the sun, they still had a couple of hours of work ahead before the power could be turned back on.

“It’s different here” than in Canada, Coyle said. Hotter, more humid. More traffic, more roads. “Everything’s bigger. More people.”  

Even the equipment in the United States is different: The workers had to learn how to use the machine that helped them install the new pole, said Jesse Ellis, 24, a Hydro One worker. “We need to get some of those,” Coyle said.

This is what they see of the Washington area: tree trunks and small patches of welcome shade. People sweating on their back porches. Traffic, the army base, their hotel rooms. 

“I’d love to see the White House when we’re this close,” Ellis said. “A drive-by, even. Maybe we can con our bus driver into going” on the way from the base to the hotel. 

Coyle did catch some fireworks. On his tired way home on the Fourth of July, he was shocked to see the bottlenecked traffic along the Potomac River — the parked cars and people sitting in lawn chairs right on the highway, waiting for the show.

Just as the group pulled into the hotel complex, he saw a tiny fragment of how the United States celebrates its independence: a glimpse of rockets exploding, coloring the night sky.

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.


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