ST. ALBANS — While many area residents enjoyed presents, holiday treats and the company of family around the Christmas tree, not everyone had Wednesday off from work.
Many of those out and about on Christmas Day were utility crewmembers, working as diligently as possible to restore power to the hundreds and hundreds of residences whose holiday season and electric service had been hampered by the recent ice storm.
As of 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 6,000 Vermont households and businesses in the Franklin County, Chittenden County, and the Northeast Kingdom had lost power. It appeared today, however, that further complications would challenge utility companies’ efforts to maintain power (see accompanying article). Besides the difficulties of working in single-digit temperatures and ice coating everything outdoors, one of the biggest challenges is feeding utility workers, said Liz Gamache, manager of Corporate Services for Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC).
During 24-hour response periods, as the utility has experienced for the past five days or so, VEC has to provide three meals a day for every worker, she said.
Gamache said VEC typically has 50 crewmembers — line workers and tree crewmembers — out in the field. The utility began preparing for the ice storm on Friday, she said, and brought in more than 600 field crew workers, a number from distant states’ utility companies.
Beyond the workers in the field, Gamache said VEC, located in Johnson, has about 50 employees working in its dispatch center, providing support for field crewmembers and coordinating the recovery efforts.
With many stores and restaurants closed Wednesday for the Christmas holiday, the difficulty of finding food for the workers only increased, Gamache said.
It didn’t take long, however, for the community to respond with a helpful dose of holiday spirit.
Northwestern Medical Center (NMC) opened up its cafeteria doors to about 100 utility workers Wednesday evening, as the hospitality crew and family members worked up a hot meal for the cold and tired workers.
“They worked in single digit (temperatures) all day long and were able to come in from the cold and have a warm meal,” Gamache said of the VEC crewmembers. “It was just fabulous.”
Gamache said VEC contacted the hospital on Christmas Eve to see what NMC could pull together, and the response didn’t disappoint. She said hospital cafeteria workers, NMC staff volunteers and family members who accompanied them greeted the VEC crews at the door, some even wearing elf costumes.
Jennifer Savage, a physician recruiter at NMC, along with hospitality coordinator Lisa Bovat, helped organize the meal for the utility workers. Savage said about 15 NMC staff members and volunteers worked up a hot meal of roast pork, cooked squash and other fixings, which, according to some of the fed workers, was the best meal of the week.
“The NMC effort is just amazing,” said Gamache, who is also St. Albans City mayor and noted the hospital’s regular commitment to helping out in the community, particularly during times of crisis.
Savage said the utility workers showed their appreciation for NMC’s efforts and the fellowship and stories shared was a bonus for the hospital’s workers and volunteers.
“It was a lot of fun,” Savage said.
Whether NMC donates the food or VEC will pay for it is still up in the air, Savage said. While Gamache said the utility is willing to pay for the food, that wasn’t really a thought that crossed the minds of the hospital workers, Savage said.
Outside of the hospital, Gamache said the Richford community opened up its arms to cold and hungry utility workers on Christmas Day. She said a VEC employee’s wife, Tracy Hemond, worked up a meal and served hot food to more than 60 utility workers in Richford.
This morning, as she was making more than a 100 sandwiches for workers’ lunches, Hemond said she served Christmas dinner to about 80 utility workers in her home. She said because the workers are taking time to help others get power back, it was an easy call to work for the past four days providing breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“They’re away from their families getting everyone’s power back,” said Hemond, whose husband is a lineworker. “I’m just trying to give back.”
In an e-mail sent this morning, Gamache also said The Crossing restaurant in Richford had helped feed crewmembers.
Outside of Franklin County, fire departments in Newport and Johnson and restaurants in Milton, Morristown, Glover and Jeffersonville also provided meals for VEC workers, she said.
Gamache also mentioned local hotels, particularly the La Quinta Inns and Suites in St. Albans that provided lodging for many of the out-of-state crewmembers.
This morning, VEC’s outage Web page reported 490 members were still without power some of them new within the last day due to falling trees. Enosburgh also remained hard-hit (see accompanying article).
Gamache said beyond the crewmembers brought in from out of state — including from places as far away as Texas and Pennsylvania — other utilities provide workers when they are able.
With Green Mountain Power restoring all its customers’ services earlier this week, Gamache, said it was able to send more workers up to northern Vermont, which saw the brunt of power outages and ill effects of the storm.
With that level of mutual aid — similar to what police and fire departments in neighboring communities provide — among Vermont’s utilities, Gamache said power could be restored in a more efficient manner. She mentioned that when Franklin County and northern Vermont was mostly spared from the effects of Tropical Storm Irene, VEC sent crewmembers to the southern part of the state to help restore power there. This time around, the roles have been reversed she said.
“We’re very grateful for them,” Gamache said. “This time we were ground zero.”
Outside of northern Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin issued his thanks to the utility workers who spent their holiday away from family and friends to try to restore power to residents.
“My thanks go out this holiday season to the crews working 24/7 to clear debris, restore power and keep roads open in the northern part of the state,” Shumlin said in a statement Wednesday. “And my heart goes out to the families who are struggling to get by without electricity.”