When four hurricanes pounded into the Southeast during August and September 2004, Florida had a tangle of wires, broken buildings and millions of people without power. For electrical contractors in the Sunshine State, that meant a double whammy. While many people lost their own power and suffered damaged property, they had to focus their attention on the power crisis around them. Millions of Floridians and Gulf Coast residents lost power at some point during the hurricane season, and some suffered that power loss twice or even three times.

Charley kicked off one of the worst hurricane seasons on record on Friday, Aug. 13, and early Saturday morning electrical contractors' phones began ringing-those phones that worked-while all the existing work came to a screeching halt.

As the rest of the country watched, electricians streamed into the state to help or to find moneymaking opportunities. Florida West Coast Chapter Manager Robert Coppersmith said he fielded phone calls from contractors throughout the country asking if they could come into the state to work. State regulations require contractors to be licensed in Florida before they can work, which makes that kind of transfer unlikely, although both union and nonunion electricians are able-and many did travel into the state-to offer their services.

“We have everything from opportunists to real good workers,” Coppersmith said.

Linemen were in high demand, and some arrived from nearly all 50 states to help bring Florida and the Gulf states back onto the grid, after the onslaught of four punishing hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. At least 20 NECA line contractors had mobilized their men in the area, according to Steve Gaines, Jr., manager of the Southeast line constructors chapter. That includes about 4,000 union linemen.

The immediate task was “just bandaging,” Gaines said. Linemen made the necessary repair work to get customers back online, especially those most in need, then returned later to make the system permanent.

When utility companies call for support they do so before the storm hits. In this case, the storms were back-to-back, so competition between utilities increased. Complete reconstruction of the power system in the hurricane strike zones will take at least a year, Gaines estimated. And some of the men on the site have been working 19-hour days.

“It's very tiring for them,” Gaines said. “That's the same type of fatigue that can lead to mistakes.”

Hazards come with this kind of cleanup as well. One of the greatest concerns is customer generators and back feed into the power systems if they don't have those generators isolated. PAR Electrical Contractors of Kansas City, Mo., president Tom Shiflett said his men always ground their work to protect themselves, while the utility companies oversee the safety of the power lines. Another hazard was caused just by the volume of work being done and the various contractors working in proximity of each other.

PAR had 350 men working during the peak of the storm cleanup, many from out of state and many working all four storms at 16 hours a day. Each storm had its own personality and required a different cleanup procedure.

Charley's Surprise

It started on Friday, the 13th of August, when Hurricane Charley surprised the town of Punta Gorda and its neighbors. Scientists did not expect a direct hit on Punta Gorda. Charley was an intense storm-a Category 4-but left a narrower swath than some that followed. Three days before the storm hit the Punta Gorda area, utility companies contacted PAR. Men began arriving from out of state; they positioned themselves north of the storm's projected path with digger derricks and insulated bucket trucks.

Electrical products' distributor Graybar Associates had its own plans; the company began shipping contracting equipment to the area to have on-hand as soon as the storm passed. Generators were sent to the Tampa office, and the company waited to see what would happen.

White Electrical Construction of Tampa helped businesses prepare their electrical systems for the coming storm. The company offered assistance in shutting down systems and waterproofing transformer vaults and supplied temporary generators. Personnel then hunkered down in Tampa. Charley was forecast to make landfall in Tampa sometime on Friday. However, about four hours before reaching land, Charley took an eastward turn and slammed into the less-prepared Punta Gorda, about 100 miles to the south.

The storm's passage left toppled live oak trees strewn in the roads-power lines tangled beneath them, flooding, and damaged and destroyed buildings across central Florida. Most buildings had lost power, lines were broken and underground transformer vaults were flooded.

Graybar located a warehouse on Burnt Store Road in Punta Gorda and, after some patch work, set it up for business.The company's warehouse stored materials including electrical products for power distribution and lighting from manufacturers such as Square D, General Electric Lighting, Cooper Industries, RACO/Hubbell and Lithonia Lighting. The weekend after the storm was quiet at the new Graybar warehouse, as people assessed the damage around their homes. Customers began arriving late Sunday and soon the warehouse was swarming with contractors and others doing electrical repairs. When equipment ran out, Graybar personnel reordered from their Tampa warehouse or directly from their suppliers. In high demand were the very basics: weather heads, 2¥7 entrances, straps, meter cables and plugs. Graybar also supplied 23 120-quart coolers to Charlotte County and delivered a trailer for one of its employees who had lost her home.

Graybar supplied generators to some of the local businesses, including a large one for the YMCA in Fort Meyers.

In Tampa, White Electrical's phone started ringing about two hours after the hurricane passed. They were expecting that, especially the calls that came from Verizon. The phone company had Remote Switching Units spread throughout central Florida in nearly every neighborhood, bringing phone service to residences and businesses. Most of them were now without power. White sent generators and men to all these units, about 50 altogether. Verizon supplied the generators that White electricians connected.

“As soon as they had one hooked up, they'd take the generator down to the next unit,” said Mark Mazur, White Electrical president.

White Electrical also connected Port Charlotte Town Center Mall so that the stores could open their doors Monday morning, offering some air-conditioned respite from the wreckage outside.

PAR's 350 linemen moved into the Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte and Daytona Beach area, picking up downed trees and reconnecting power lines first to hospitals and essential buildings after connecting to the powerstation. They worked their way down the grid from main feeder lines to residences. After a week and a half, they were finished; many of the PAR linemen returned home for several days' rest.

Here's Frances

That was when Category 2 Frances came ashore, causing a broader path of destruction. Progress Energy and the Orlando Utilities Commission saw the projected landfall site and contacted PAR again, this time mobilizing the workers north of Orlando. “This one didn't seem as bad,” said Shiflett who came from Kansas City to see the clean up of both hurricanes. Considerable flooding and heavy winds had done a lot of damage, however, and an estimated 3.4 million customers were without power.

In Daytona Beach, Olson Electric Company, the oldest electrical contractor in the state, had already put away its essentials. When company personnel heard they were in Hurricane Frances' path, IT Manager Jeff Bohr, Purchasing Agent Greg Oldham and Administrative Manager Darla Dumas obtained a storage container and put the essential files and computers into it.

“We had our estimator take his work home with him and ran cost reports on everything,” Olson president G. Curtis Duffield said.

Olson Electric was hard hit in its Daytona Beach location. But despite the damage to the building, the electrical contractor never stopped business. Some of that was due to planning.

“This foresight has helped us survive,” Duffield said. “We lost our roof and the building suffered 13 inches of torrential rain and winds in excess of 70 mph. The news media has shown our building at least 100 times and many of our customers thought we had gone out of business … . We have hundreds of customers to contact and let know that we are still in business.” Olson Electric also has a large office in Orlando, where the company sent workers to continue operations. Olson Electric's immediate goals were to get Daytona Beach back in operation, take care of regular customers and handle new customers.

“Some of our customers like Lockheed Martin Missiles suffered serious damage, which caused us to mobilize over 50 electricians,” he said.

Olson also responded to a call from the NASA Kennedy Space Center where the Thermal Protection Shuttle Facility lost its roof and sustained significant wiring damage. Olson Electric offered an estimate to have the system repaired.

For White Electrical, Frances just blended into Charley. “To us it was almost the same storm,” said Mazur. With more wind, rain and floods, the electricians continued to string temporary cabling, then permanently restored power. By the third week of September, they had everyone's power restored.

This time, the utilities held onto the linemen as Ivan began working its way toward Florida. Once it seemed that this third hurricane was aiming away from the Florida peninsula, the linemen were released and called on by Entergy for the New Orleans area.

“About a third of the linemen made it to Jackson, Miss.,” Shiflett said. “The rest hunkered down in Orlando (and Gainesville),” to wait out the storm.

Ivan Strikes

Category 3 Hurricane Ivan proved to be unpredictable also, traveling east of New Orleans and causing the greatest damage in Pensacola, Fla. The Southern Company, a utility company that owns local utilities such as Gulf Power and Alabama Power, called on PAR.

Landfall brought reports that in the beach-resort town of Gulf Shores, Ala.-where the storm's eye came ashore-the sky glowed bright green from blowing electrical transformers.

“It's a mess down there,” Shiflett said from his Kansas City office. “The guys say it's the worst that they've seen.” Many of the linemen are Midwesterners and have experience working with storm cleanup, but not necessarily in the heat and humidity that's typical in Florida.

“These guys are used to working in 10 below after ice storms,” Shiflett said. When hearing from his men in Florida, Shiflett heard mostly about the heat.

Linemen stayed in motels, most in Biloxi, Miss., leaving their equipment at staging areas and commuting to the job sites.

Ivan spawned a tornado that hit Bagby and Russell Electric Company in Mobile, Ala., ripping off the roof as it crossed over I-65. Bagby and Russell, which specializes in part in security-camera installation, had robotic cameras covering the action from outside the building. These cameras continued to film throughout the night, unscathed. An attached warehouse full of equipment also escaped the hurricane and its destruction. At 8 a.m. the morning after the storm, Frank Russell, company president, returned to the building to find the roof gone and a flood inside. Strangely, the phone lines were still working. “We were standing in three inches of water, but we were taking phone calls at eight o'clock in the morning,” Russell said. The company never closed its operation, but moved into three temporary trailers and a three-bedroom house across the street from the building.

Bagby and Russell set up generators where they were needed most, starting with South Baldwin Regional Medical Center and an insurance company. Russell, who has survived a handful of these hurricanes since moving to Mobile in 1960, said, “You never get used to it, but it's something you live with and you prepare for.” He added that, “The Lord has been good to us. Out of 135 employees, there were no catastrophes [to their homes], only normal storm damage.”

Jeanne Crosses Paths

Ten days later, while 70,000 homes and businesses remained without power, Hurricane Jeanne appeared, following a similar track to that of Frances. In this case, debris from previous hurricanes was whipped up throughout central Florida. Polk County, one of the hardest hit areas, had a part in three of the four hurricanes.

This time Olson Electric fared well in both its Orlando and Daytona Beach locations. The worst part was the power outage in the Daytona Beach office.

“Imagine working in 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity,” Duffield said of his office. “Even the mail was damp.” Olson Electric workers returned to Kennedy Space Center, where the Thermal Protection Shuttle Facility-with Frances-related roof damage-suffered another 10 inches of rain. “We're out there today,” Duffield said two hours after Jeanne, coming up with a modified estimate for repair work.

“It's just more of the same,” said Mazur at White Electrical, fielding phone calls as early as Sunday afternoon, as the storm still raged northwest. “We've got power problems again.” For Verizon, it meant returning to the same remote units White Electrical's men had been to before, setting up temporary generators just weeks later.

“Tampa's hurting,” Mazur said, describing impassable roads, flooding in low-lying areas and massive power outages. White Electrical went to provide generator service at businesses again, including the Hyatt hotel and CSX railroad. “We're getting tired of it,” he said.

“A lot of these guys have personal issues,” he said of the men working to restore at least temporary power, while they may have flood damage or power out at their own homes. While there were no more hurricanes heading for Florida at the time, Mazur noted that hurricane season does not officially end until November 30.

Graybar Punta Gorda intends to remain in its new location indefinitely. Contractors there and throughout Florida are beginning to resume normal activity as power is further restored and construction projects resume their progress. Shiflett said the scope of the hurricanes' damage is still staggering. Sadly, two PAR linemen were killed in a vehicle accident.

“We're from the Midwest, so we're used to nasty weather,” he said. “We've worked with ice storms, but with those, you don't have all the human suffering,” Shiflett said. “That's what you really hate to see. We really feel for the people of Florida.” EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.