‘The real heroes are in the trucks’

By Mike Rizzuto

Sun Times Editor

If you were looking for true, real-life heroes this past Friday, September 19th, then Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles was the place to be.

Trucks of all sizes, shapes, and colors filled the massive parking lots to capacity and beyond around the popular Lake Charles sports complex, and were only outnumbered by the gallant people scurrying about getting ready to put them to good use.

Last minute tasks were being fulfilled, as drivers loaded hulking truck cabs with water bottles, coffee thermoses, and quickly bagged lunches, all designed to keep their energy up to at least minimum levels for yet another 16-hour shift.

These were the hardworking employees of the Energy Corporation, which services four states (Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) in the area, as well as the City of New Orleans on a separate basis.

“We’ve got workers from all over the nation helping to restore power where Hurricane Ike knocked it out,” Entergy Customer Service Manager Clyde Mitchell said. “We’ve got guys from Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, and other states working 16-hour shifts to get things back up and running.

“These are the real heroes--the guys in those trucks,” Mitchell clarifies. “As they work, they are just like the people they are serving.

“They don’t have air conditioning, hot food, or any of the comforts of a modern home. They are constantly bitten by mosquitoes, scratched by limbs and branches, and are very often working chest deep in flood waters. They don’t have access to television, modern conveniences, and the internet. And when their shift ends, they bunk where they can on flimsy cots, eager to get after it the next day.

“Some of them have lost their own homes due to Hurricane Gustav or Hurricane Ike,” Mitchell states. “But before they can address their own needs, they toil for their fellow man. You have no idea how proud I am of each of them. And that’s why I call them ‘the real heroes.’”

Mitchell is as effective as the heroes he praises, although you would never hear it from his own lips. Fellow managers and officials like Mike LeBleu, Entergy Site Manager, and Line Supervisors Doug Wellborn and Lynn Benoit, can readily testify on Mitchell’s behalf.

“Clyde is great at what he does,” LeBleu says. “You have to understand that it’s like a small city out here, and he keeps things running smoothly.

“We have over 500 workers here and well over 300 trucks,” LeBleu emphasizes. “Most of these guys are working day and night and were here before the storm hit. Some sleep in the Coliseum, and others at motels, if they can find one. We have to make sure we have enough food, water, cooks, bedding, places to do the laundry, and plenty of other daily accommodations.

“We fill the trucks with gas at night when they are sleeping, as well as making sure we have the necessary equipment to clear the vegetation to begin working on and repairing the power lines.

“Clyde is just like the drivers. He does a great job and does it right. He makes sure our customers receive reliable and affordable energy. He works with the local governments, making sure all customers, especially seniors, the less fortunate, disabled, and the low-income and special needs customers, are serviced.”

But Mitchell does even more. Other concerns of his include the safety of his workers and the inhabitants of the community. He makes sure he knows where trees will be down, where flooding will occur, and where electrical lines can be severed.

“The people have to be safe,” Mitchell remarks. “We try to keep them away from water, since there will undoubtedly be an influx of salt water where the storm hits. Salt water is a better conductor of electricity than fresh water, which makes it all the more important when you consider the tidal surge, which is salt water.

“We also emphasize that people stay away from downed poles and lines and that they allow us to let us do our job without interfering. Every time we have to stop working, we fall behind that much in getting power restored.”

Most people think that work starts after hurricanes strike, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Mitchell explains, the first step in the process starts before the storm arrives and is called the Pre-Storm Preparation Stage.

“When the weather reports are pretty well locked down, a large crew like the one we have here is sent to that location,” Mitchell states. “We meet with local Police Juries, Town Mayors, Law Officials, and members of Homeland Security to form a plan.

“After a suitable plan is agreed on, we sit down with over 300 crew truck operators, 200 vegetative truck operators, and 120-150 scouts to outline the plan of action. The main corps of workers then ‘hunkers’ down for the storm, and after it passes, begins assessments.”

The next phase involves the scout and vegetative crew work immediately after the storm subsides.

“Scout crews do just that, Mitchell continues. “They scout the areas and bring back information as to what kind of damage has taken place and where. They then combine with the vegetative crews to clear areas of fallen trees, limbs, and other obstacles that promote power outages. Once we clear the roads of debris, the third step commences, which is the Restoration and Distribution Phase.

“Linemen and service crews are then sent out to get the ‘feeder lines’ in, which is the first step to re-establishing the power. As more trucks roll in to offer help, we safeguard those places that are repaired and branch out to other areas.

“Of 80,000 customers in the area, 44,000 were without electricity after Ike hit. In just a week, we are almost through restoring all the power. Only houses that have been damaged severely and need repair are without power now.”

Mitchell and his Entergy workers will have little time to savor that accomplishment. His crew members are already in route to Houston, Beaumont, and Galveston, Texas, places where power is still out and where his crews are sorely needed.

According to Mitchell, it may be three or four more weeks before power is restored in most places. In other places nearer ground zero, it could be more than six weeks before things get better.

Mitchell and Entergy want to thank the people for following rules and regulations that make their job easier. He also has high praise for the area’s leaders who have worked with Entergy during these times of crisis. In fact, the only people Mitchell doesn’t praise are himself and his immediate group, who toil in virtual anonymity.

But then, would you expect real heroes to brag about doing their tasks in such a workmanlike, professional manner?

In Clyde Mitchell’s case, certainly not!

Acadia Parish Today

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