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Kindness cheers workers

He kneels down and puts his arms around a Great Pyrenees, then the tired, dusty lineman says, simply: "Wow. It's so nice just to hug a dog."

BY SUSAN KIM | HOWARD COUNTY, Md. | September 23, 2003

"It was depressing. Trucks were stuck in the mud. It was a real mess."

—Ron Johnson

He kneels down and puts his arms around a Great Pyrenees, then the tired, dusty lineman says, simply: "Wow. It's so nice just to hug a dog."

Then, like so many of the storm survivors he is helping, he tells his own story. He has come all the way from Wisconsin to Maryland to help get power back to thousands of people who, by Tuesday night, were still waiting. He has a Siberian Husky at home that he misses.

And right now he's grateful for the little things like big friendly dogs and homemade cookies. At the Howard County fairgrounds, hundreds of utility workers many far from home gather each night to quickly eat before they return to a shift that can run from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m.

On Tuesday night Howard County's Dogs on Wheels and the Bethany United Methodist Church teamed up to see what they could do to boost morale.

It turned out that wagging tails and sweet treats were just the things.

Because by the time a nasty new weather system finished pummeling the area early Tuesday morning, utility workers felt like they were taking one step forward and two steps back.

Packing four inches of rain and a possible tornado, the storms caused new damage throughout the mid-Atlantic. In Maryland alone, 50,000 new customers were added to the 130,000 who have been waiting for electricity to come back since Hurricane Isabel struck last week.

And now it could be Saturday before they'll see the light.

"One of our teams worked until 11 last night restoring this line, then first thing this morning they had to go back to the same one. It was kind of disheartening," admitted Hubert Hayes, Jr., of Energy Delivery Services from Charlotte, N.C.

The night before that, Hayes and his crew spent the night in a motel with no power and no hot water.

And when the workers showed up before dawn Tuesday and found their trucks stuck in the mud at the fairground, it was, well, a downer, said Ron Johnson of BG&E. "It was depressing. Trucks were stuck in the mud. It was a real mess. We got four inches of rain? Is that more than Hurricane Isabel? I didn't know that. I haven't seen any TV."

After dinner they opened packages of homemade cookies from volunteers at Bethany United Methodist Church, and they read a handwritten message: "May God bless you and keep you safe in your work."

And it took more than a few dozen cookies to feed several hundred workers. To put it in perspective, these workers ate 800 racks of ribs in one day, according to a server with the Canopy restaurant, a favorite local carryout.

After dinner, time to pet the dogs Harry, a Great Pyrenees; Loki, a Newfoundland; and Rudy, a Labrador Retriever who were only too happy to oblige.

Why cookies and dogs?

"Well, we thought we ought to be doing something for these workers," explained Tricia Robson, director of Howard County Pets on Wheels and also a member of Bethany United Methodist Church in Elllicott City, Md.

"First somebody at my church thought of the cookies. And I thought, 'We need dogs to go with that.' Dogs go with everything."

And Harry, her 8-month-old Great Pyrenees which by any standard is already a huge dog, did seem perfectly at home sitting on the side of a dusty road while utility trucks rumbled past him and worker after worker came over to pet him. Normally, Pets on Wheels offers visits to the elderly, Robson explained, but post-disaster times called for special action.

It's about remembering that utility workers are people, not automatons, said Judy Thielen, another member of Pets on Wheels. "They do have to eat. And they have to sleep and get up and start all over again until it's done," she said.

When the community gets to meet the utility workers, it makes a difference in how people treat each other, said Wayne Sherrill of Energy Delivery Services. "It seems to be better when you're face-to-face with somebody. It's when they drive by that people tend to make rude comments about why their power isn't up yet."

And the dogs help the people meet each other, said Lisa Skillington of Dogs on Wheels. "The dogs have been a good icebreaker for talking to various crews."

Crystal Cheuvront, a forester who works for BG&E, puts down her clipboard and pauses to pet Harry.

"Now, this is just a good idea, bringing the dogs. I've been coming here every morning at 4 a.m.," she said. "And I can't leave until everyone is safe and accounted for."

She keeps track of 220 of her fellow foresters. "What that means is that I'm a mother hen," she laughs.

She's been going home to her own darkness since she doesn't have power, either. "I don't mind that much because I like camping but not necessarily after a long, long day," she said.

Besides cookies, dogs and good thoughts, what could these workers use? "Well," Cheuvront thought. "Help with laundry. Some kind of laundry service. A lot of workers are from out of town. And they just have massive amounts of laundry," she laughed.

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