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Crews get jeers -- and cheers

"Get off your butt and go to work" -- and that's only one of the jeers John Layton has heard in the three days since Hurricane Isabel struck.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 21, 2003

"It's stay clear or get killed."

—John Layton

"Get off your butt and go to work" -- and that's only one of the jeers John Layton has heard in the three days since Hurricane Isabel struck.

After traveling from Charlotte, N.C., to try to help get power back to thousands of people in Maryland, Layton said he doesn't need that kind of talk, especially since he's been working 15-hour shifts these days.

"Today we started work at 5 a.m. and we'll work until 8 p.m.," said Layton, a sub-station worker with Energy Delivery Services.

Layton and his crew were re-energizing a major electrical line in Ellicott City, Md., a community between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. When a line is re-energized, work crews remove the ground. Then they account for every crew member, Layton said, by returning to their trucks to wait for the line to re-energize so they can test it.

During that few minutes, they might eat a snack or catch a wink. And that's when the drive-by jeering starts. "I've been sitting here letting a line re-energize, and people drive by and yell stuff," Layton said.

He'd like to tell people he's not a goon -- he's a substation tech, he's trying to help, and he's obeying safety rules so nobody gets killed. By Sunday afternoon, two line workers had been killed in Maryland while trying to restore power.

It's dangerous work, pointed out Layton. "So when we're re-energizing a line, that's why we're sitting there. It's stay clear or get killed."

As the crew tested a line, they broke into cheers -- "this community should have power tonight," Layton said.

Layton also said that, when drivers see power trucks traveling in a convoy, it's a good idea to treat them as emergency vehicles. "Give them the right of way, just like you would a funeral procession," he said. "Our trucks are in line for a reason. Trucks get lost if they can't stay in the convoy, and we also can't always see little cars between these big trucks."

At least some faith-based groups were discussing opening local churches or shelters where electrical workers and other storm cleanup crews could take a break, get some food, or just get some kind words.

Some people have been nice, said Layton. "Some people have cheered when we come into their neighborhood, and some people offer us a cold drink."

Layton has also shared his cooler of cold drinks with residents who are out of power, he said.

But don't try to offer crews a tip -- they can't accept it. "We can't take tips," Layton said. "Would you like a cold drink?"

By Sunday evening, utility crews had restored power to more than two-thirds of people who had been without since Isabel struck But residents in the hardest-hit areas could spend several more days without juice.

In Howard County, Md., local government officials gave out ice at the Columbia Mall. But in many other communities, grocery stores and gas stations penned signs that said, simply: No ice. No batteries.

In Norfolk, Va., grocery stores could not carry perishable items. Local gas stations in Newport News were charging $2.50 for a gallon of gas.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported it had distributed 650,000 tons of ice down to the Hampton Roads area alone.

Isabel severed electrical service for more than 6 million customers from the Carolinas to New York. By Sunday morning, that figure was down to 1.6 million.

Virginia was hit hardest, and Dominion Virginia Power reported it was down to just below 900,000 homes and businesses without electricity Sunday. It could be several more days before those people will be able to turn on their lights. Workers there were completely rebuilding some distribution systems.

In Maryland, nearly 600,000 customers were still without power by Sunday evening. In Washington, D.C. and its suburbs, hundreds of residents had no electricity or potable water. Some traffic signals were still inoperative and roads were still blocked by fallen trees and power lines.

North Carolina was still reporting more than 130,000 power outages Sunday. In hard-hit Bertie County power officials said some residents there could be a month without power.

The only road that runs the length of Hatteras Island has been washed out.

At least 30 deaths have blamed on the storm, 17 of them in Virginia. North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware have been declared federal disaster areas.

Emergency management officials were concerned that even more people would lose their lives by mis-using generators. Three people died, and several others fell sick from carbon monoxide poisoning after using generators indoors.

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