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Hurricane helpers: Local individuals do their part to assist East Coast recovery effort

Kevin Blader (left) and Dean Anderson, employees of New Richmond Utilities, were among the hundreds of utility workers who converged on the East Coast following Hurricane Sandy. Their job was to help the Long Island Power Authority restore electrical service to customers.

When the call for help came, two New Richmond Utilities employees drove east to assist in recovery efforts related to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Dean Anderson and Kevin Blader were on Long Island for a week and a half providing assistance to the Long Island Power Authority. Their main responsibility was hooking homes back up to the power grid so families could begin recovering from the disaster.

"We're glad we went," Anderson said last week upon returning to New Richmond, "but we're glad to be back."

Their time in New York turned out to be more of an ordeal than they first imagined, he said. The crew members slept in their New Richmond Utilities truck a few nights, as promised make-shift tent cities were not yet ready for workers to inhabit.

"And the motels were all taken by flood victims," Blader explained.

Once the tent cities were ready, another storm hit the region, dropping temperatures and picking up the wind. Anderson said they had to retreat to the truck another night when the weather was too nasty to stay outside.

The utility crews worked 16 hours a day to restore power, leaving them just eight hours to rest, shower and get ready for the next day.

When they were on the job, Anderson said utility workers had a tough time gaining access to the job sites, many of which were the back yards of residential homes.

Because the East Coast is so heavily populated, Blader said, homes are constructed close together and it was difficult to get bucket trucks to where they were needed most.

The back yards usually had mature trees, setting up the perfect scenario for power outages and cluttered work areas.

"Their system is really outdated compared to our system," Anderson said. "A lack of maintenance showed through."

In New Richmond, trees are trimmed so that downed trees won't come in contact with powerlines.

"We get pretty aggressive with our tree trimming," Blader admitted.

That's not the case on Long Island, he said, where mature trees can be left to grow within feet of live lines.

"I can't imagine how many power outages they have every year because of tree damage during storms," Anderson noted.

Also, the powerlines serving many of the homes were old, Anderson said, with much of the insulation having come off the wires.

Despite the difficulties involved, Anderson said the work was rewarding because people were thrilled when their power was eventually restored. Some people were without power for weeks following the hurricane.

For the Long Island Power Authority alone, restoration work involved a workforce of more than 15,000, including approximately 6,400 line workers and 3,700 tree trimmers. Over the course of the restoration effort, LIPA replaced more than 4,500 poles, more than 2,100 transformers, and repaired approximately 400 miles of wire and 44 affected substations.

Red Cross

Before all the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy could be inventoried, volunteers with the American Red Cross organization were traveling to the East Coast to help out.

Among the thousands of workers who traveled to the storm-ravaged area were two rural Somerset residents who have extensive experience responding to natural and manmade disasters.

Sherm and Jean Boucher served with the Red Cross for 19 days following the storm, helping to feed those impacted by the tragedy. Every ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) in the Red Cross's national fleet was deployed to the East Coast to deal with the immediate needs of people.

When they first arrived in New Jersey Oct. 31, the Bouchers were temporarily assigned to loading dock duty, where needed supplies were received, sorted and distributed. The majority of the time, however, the two Red Cross veterans worked in mobile food service vehicles, called ERVs, feeding 200 to 250 people twice a day.

"It doesn't sound like a lot of meals," Sherm said, "but driving was an issue with all the traffic. It was unbelievable."

Jean said each day would start at around 8:30 a.m., and often the mobile food delivery volunteers wouldn't be done with their jobs until 9 or 10 p.m.

"We were putting in 12-hour days at least," Sherm said.

Finding a place to sleep, shower and relax was a big challenge for many of the volunteers. During their stay in New Jersey, the Bouchers enjoyed a range of accommodations - from a Hyatt hotel to a church basement.

Their stay in the Hyatt was anything but a vacation. The hotel didn't have any electricity or heat for a few days, and the couple was forced to use glow sticks to provide light inside their room and bathroom. Candles were used to provide light in common areas of the hotel.

Apart from a lack of logistical coordination some days and traffic issues most days, Jean said the couple's experience with the relief effort was a positive one.

"You just had to be flexible and patient," Sherm said of the occasional frustrations of the day.

Despite those moments, Jean said the people were thankful for any helping hand they received.

"You got to know some of the people on your route," she said. "Some of them had lost everything ... but they always had a big smile for you."

It was also a pleasure to get to know other volunteers who had gathered from across the nation, and other parts of the world, to help, Jean added.

"You meet lots of nice people and all the workers become a big family," she said. "We developed a special bond because we were all there to help people."

When they ended their stint in New Jersey, Jean said many of the areas where the couple served meals still did not have electrical service restored.

"The Red Cross will be there for a while," she guessed. "There is so much work to do yet. The damage is so widespread."

As Red Cross volunteers, the Bouchers have been called out to help several times. They responded to Hurricane Ike damage in 2008, as well as a tornado in Albert Lea and flooding in Arkansas. The couple also responds to local fires that require firefighters to be on the scene for hours, thus creating a need for food and drinks.

The Bouchers said they will continue to offer their services when disaster strikes locally and far away.

"We'll do this for as long as we can still get in and out of the ERVs," she said.

Sherm said he did learn one big lesson during this Red Cross deployment.

"I will not leave town again without a GPS," he said with a laugh, recounting how he'd gotten lost driving in New Jersey and accidentally drove into New York City, where traffic was snarled.