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NAEC crew makes a difference in post-storm NYC

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Richard Irby


"The work was about the same (as here). The difference was, there was so much traffic and so many people everywhere we worked. You had to be careful. We're not used to working in busy areas. We're usually working out in the country."

That is how Chris Tomlinson, a 21-year employee of North Arkansas Electric, describes his two weeks in New York City, working to help the area recover from Super-storm Sandy. Tomlinson and co-workers, Craig Ferguson, Randy Smith and Ben Leslie, were chosen from many NAEC volunteers to make the trip. They drove their trucks to Memphis on Nov. 5, where they met up with crews from three other Arkansas coops, and headed toward New York, for what they knew was going to be long days of hard work to help frustrated people get their power back on.

"We worked in the Long Island area around Long Island University. It was a nice area and we worked in a pretty ritzy neighborhood most of the time," Tomlinson said. Their initial accommodations cannot be described as "ritzy." Because so many families with no power and damaged homes were in area hotels and motels, the Salem crew could not get rooms, and had to sleep on a fire station floor for three nights. But, since they were working 16-hour days, they didn't need too many comforts.

"We were up and ready to meet for breakfast by 6 a.m., then worked until about 10 p.m., when we would have supper and try to get some sleep for the next day," Tomlinson explained.

Tomlinson, a lead lineman, worked the devastating ice storm that hit Fulton County and the region in 2009. How did the east coast storm compare?

"It was probably worse than the ice storm because (Sandy) took down so many trees. When we would go into an area, there were so many trees down that we couldn't just fix broken lines because we couldn't get to them. We usually had to put up all new stuff, and that takes longer," Tomlinson said.

While Sandy had passed and the local crew was able to work in nice weather when they first arrived, a second storm, a nor'easter, blew through dumping six to eight inches of snow. The second storm caused about 66,000 new outages, and some customers who had power restored lost it again, which was discouraging to residents and workers, but Tomlinson took the snow in stride, saying, "We were just out working in it."

Tomlinson has left North Arkansas Electric territory before to work in areas hit by storms, but past trips were to areas in southern Arkansas or up in Missouri. Driving all the way to New York and dealing with one of the world's largest cities was a whole new experience. But, surprisingly, Tomlinson did not find the unfriendly, in-your-face New Yorkers that are part of New York City's legend.

"About everybody we met were really friendly and thankful that we were there. They were always offering us something to drink and bringing us lunch," Tomlinson said. One family expressed its gratitude for the crew's work to get power back in their neighborhood by inviting them to stay in their home.

"We stayed with them for three nights, until enough people were able to go back home and we could get hotel rooms," Tomlinson, a man of few words, said.

Richard Frisenda, the man who had the crew stay in his home was more descriptive of the contributions the local workers made during their trip.

"On the day the nor'easter arrived, a crew of linemen from North Arkansas Electric Cooperative also arrived on our street, and in absolutely horrendous and dangerous conditions, spent the entire day and evening working to replace a pole and transformer that had come down in front of our home. In spite of the wind and driving snow, they remained out there working until it simply became too unsafe for them to continue," Frisenda said in a letter he sent to NAEC Human Resources Manager Steve Hall. "They returned the next morning, and told me they were going to do everything they could to get our power restored by the end of the day. After they restored power, I learned that for the past four nights they had been sleeping on the floor of the Old Jericho Fire Department - no cots, no blankets and no showers. I was appalled. I felt ashamed that they had driven 1,300 miles to help Long Islanders, and this was how they were being treated. They ended up staying with us for three nights, and it was one of the best experiences we ever had. These men were incredibly respectful to me, my wife and daughter, and we enjoyed getting to know them. They shared stories and photos of their families and children, and by the end of their stay we had become friends. My son and I have every intention of accepting their invitation to visit them this summer in Arkansas."

North Arkansas Electric CEO Mel Coleman responded to Frisenda thanking his family for its compassion toward his employees, "What you experienced was truly the spirit of the men and women who work for America's Electric Cooperatives, in particular the one I think is the very best, North Arkansas Electric Cooperative."

To Chris Tomlinson and his co-workers, it was no big deal. "We got back on a Friday and had the weekend to rest up," Tomlinson said. Then it was back to work here in the Ozarks.

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