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GUC team heads to Florida

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Greenville Utility trucks leave from the GUC facility for Florida to help assist with down power lines along with other complications, Tuesday morning

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Except for the 15 bucket trucks, the men who gathered in the dark hours of Tuesday morning looked like any other group preparing for a road trip to Florida.

But the conversation outside a Greenville Utilities warehouse on Mumford Road wasn’t about fun in the sun.

GUC linemen, along with contractors from River City Construction and Xylem and two Kinston linemen, all told 54 volunteers, set out for Florida about 6 a.m. Tuesday to join hundreds of utility workers from across the nation in restoring electricity in that hurricane battered state.

Throughout the morning, the conversation returned to safety.

“I know you guys’ work, you work safe. But what’s our No. 1 goal? Coming back the way we leave,” said Woodie Wilson, senior safety and training specialist with ElectriCities, an organization that supports public power in North Carolina. “We don’t want anybody to get hurt or anybody get in an accident.”

“Heck yeah,” whispered one man.

“I appreciate y’all volunteering and going to Flordia,” GUC CEO/General Manager Tony Cannon said during a final briefing before the group left. “It’s bad down there.”

On Monday, Florida Power and Light reported between 8.5 million-9 million Floridians were without power. The Orlando Sentinel reported Tuesday afternoon that 5.4 million homes and businesses were still without electricity, and CNN reported later that 15 million people were without electricity. 

The group, which represents about one-third of GUC’s electrical crews, drove out in 15 bucket trucks, four 4-wheel drive trucks and about 10 other vehicles and trailers filled with equipment and other and supplies.

The team could spend two-three weeks in Florida, barring no weather systems force their return home.

GUC is part of a network of municipal systems that have mutual aid agreements designed to offer assistance during disasters. Following Hurricane Irene in 2011, Greenville Utilities received assistance from Huntsville, Ala., and Fayetteville. 

GUC pays its employees and is then reimbursed by the utilities it helps, said Steve Hawley, GUC spokesman. Their daily work hours will vary, but they will work seven days a week while in Florida, he said. 

The crew was headed for Lakeland, Fla., a city of more than 106,000, located 56 miles southwest of Orlando. The Orlando Sentinel reported that as of Tuesday afternoon 56 percent of Polk County, where Lakeland is located, is without electricity.

“As these guys go down there I want them to focus first on their safety and the safety of their co-workers and to make sure they do what they need to do to protect each other so they can come home safely to us,” Cannon said.

“You are on a system you are not familiar with before you start a job … you need to assess what’s there and make sure you know what those risks are before you get started,” Cannon said. “Your safety is paramount. You are going down to help these people, you can help them the most if you are safe and healthy.”

The GUC team had line workers whose experience ranged from three years one the job to more than 30 years. While almost all have had experience aiding other North Carolina communities, for several this was their first time traveling to an out-of-state disaster.

“I’m concerned about the people down there. They’ve been without power for a few days,” said Remington Gaskins, a substation lineman who joined GUC three years ago. Gaskins said he and the other linemen are ready, having assembled all the safety equipment they could need.

“I believe we are for prepared for whatever they have down there,” he said. “It was an honor to be chosen in just the short time I’ve been here. I want to make sure I go down there and staff safe, keep my coworkers safe and get as many power lines back on as we can.”

Opposite Gaskins is Jeff Byrd, electric distribution engineer and a 33-year veteran of Greenville Utilities.

This is Bryd’s seventh out-of-state trip to aid in disaster recovery and likely his last; he is retiring at year’s end.

“It’s what I do. It’s in my blood. Serving other people, serving our customers, serving other people’s customers is in my blood. It’s been in my blood since I started this 33 years ago,” he said.

Bryd wasn’t thinking about past storms but how to get nearly 30 vehicles and 56 people to Florida in a timely manner.

Conserving fuel was at the top of his agenda and he reminded drivers to shut down the vehicles during stops.

“We want to save fuel as much as possible,” Byrd said. He had located fueling stations in South Carolina and Georgia, but hadn’t found any locations south of Jacksonville, Fla. He told drivers to keep records of their mileage and the number of gallons needed to top off tanks so he could calculate their fuel needs once they reached Lakeland.

“It’s a challenge to carry this type of contingency along the way, we can see that gathering here,” Byrd said. “But at the same time when we get to the place to go to work we are brothers; we have to look after each other.

“We’re going to be safe. We’ve got the Lord’s mercy and his grace, we have his travel mercies,” Bryd said.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

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