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Bowlin Energy and AEP

Post-storm repairs. Video by Swikar Patel, The Journal Gazette.

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Randy Collins of Bowlin Energy in Walton, Ky., works near the 1000 block of West Pettit Avenue. Power is expected to be restored to 80 percent of Allen and Whitley counties tonight.

‘Hero’ linemen work overtime

Crews battle fatigue, heat while working to restore power to area

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Donnie Smothers of Bowlin Energy in Walton, Ky., climbs a utility pole Tuesday afternoon near the 1000 block of West Pettit Avenue.

– Tony Epperson is prepared to spend Independence Day away from his family.

Just add it to the list of holidays he’s already missed.

Such is the life of an electrical lineman.

Epperson was one of 500-plus linemen, supervisors, fleet mechanics and safety coordinators called to the region by Indiana Michigan Power after Friday’s storm brought wind gusts of up to 91 mph that toppled more than 500 trees and cut power to tens of thousands.

“It takes a special kind of person to do this kind of work,” said Epperson, who has been on the job for 25 years. “There’s been Christmas upon Christmas that I’ve been gone.

“Before, when my daughter was 2 or 3, she was like, “Where’s daddy.’ Now it’s, ‘My dad’s my hero.’ ”

As an operations manager with Bowlin Energy of Walton, Ky., Epperson left northern Kentucky as soon as he got the call about the storm Friday.

Crews from Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas followed suit.

“One of the challenges has been getting enough crews in,” I&M spokeswoman Sarah Bodner said. “There’s only so many linemen you can call in.”

Bodner said I&M’s first priority after the storm was to make sure hospitals and the city’s water filtration plant had power. From there, she said, it was what they could fix first that would restore power for the most people.

It takes a long time for crews to find where the problems are, coupled with the fact that 95 percent of I&M’s circuits were damaged. That means customers were left in the dark for longer than they wanted, she said.

“We will do this safely,” Bodner said. “We’re not willing to take shortcuts.”

Epperson also was here in 2008 when the city was hit by the ice storm.

“(The ice storm) was a little bit more difficult because of the roads,” Epperson said.

Sixteen-hour days are the norm, Epperson said, and sure, he deals with people who are frustrated, who have been without power for days.

But then a woman in a house near where Epperson’s crew is working came out and offered them some water.

“No thank you, we’re fine,” he said before getting back to work.

His crew spent about four hours Tuesday working on a 100-foot section of line leading up to a pair of circuit breakers that blew behind West Pettit Avenue near Foster Park.

The workers must wear heavy rubber sleeves, along with rubber gloves underneath leather gloves. Their jeans and shirts are made of heavy, fire-retardant material.

“Fatigue is a big factor too,” Epperson said.

I&M estimated that 30,000 customers were still without power in Adams, Allen and Whitley counties as of 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Power is expected to be back on for 80 percent of the customers in Allen and Whitley counties by tonight, but Adams County might have to wait until late Monday.

The company said it has restored service to more than 88,000 of its customers.

“These guys are working as fast as they can,” Bodner said. “The bottom line is that it’s going to take time.”

Arnold and Sheila Kiefer have lived in their home on West Pettit Avenue for 27 years. They’ve been through significant floods in the last decade, the ice storm in ’08 and now this.

“The ice storm did more damage, but I got a new bedroom out of it,” Sheila Kiefer said, referring to a tree that fell on part of their house. “This is the worst because of the heat.”

Without power for five days, the couple sat on a swing in their backyard Tuesday afternoon as Epperson and crew worked to restring the power line behind their house. Sheila fanned herself, while Arnold used his leg to rock the swing back and forth.

“I keep thinking, ‘Any minute now,’ so we haven’t gone anyplace,” Sheila Kiefer said. “I’m just really grateful for the utility people and what they’ve had to go through. I know it’s been really tough for them.”

Five days without electricity and she’s grateful?

“It brings out the best in your neighbors,” Sheila Kiefer smiles. They got their power back at 6:30 p.m.