Hillsboro crew typified spirit of utility-repair efforts

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
In the midst of one of the most severe ice storms in recent memory, residents of Hillsboro endured a relatively brief 12-hour power outage, a minor inconvenience compared to its neighbors to the east and south.

What makes that accomplishment even more impressive was the fact that the outage was primarily the result of Westar’s primary feed line, not with the system in Hillsboro itself.

According to Mike Duerksen, foreman of the Hillsboro electrical and sewer departments, preparation for such a storm had been in the works for several years.

“We’ve done a lot of tree trimming in the past couple of years, and this is the exact reason why,” Duerksen said. “Some people don’t like how we trim trees or think we do it excessively, but this is the exact reason why.

“Had we not been keeping up with our trimming, this storm would have caused a whole lot more problems than it did.”

Duerksen, a 16-year veteran with the City of Hillsboro, is one of three full-time members of the electrical department. The other two full-time workers are Randy Jantz and Todd Helmer.

“I got my training on the job,” Duerksen said. “I was in the water and sewer department, but they needed help over here and I’ve been here ever since.”

Duerksen said the job is dangerous, but information, education and common sense keep the department safe.

“You have to be trained when you go work in the high-voltage areas,” he said. “Todd learned on the job like I did and Randy attended lineman school at Pratt.”

Keeping current on the rules and regulations, as well as good equipment, are a necessity of this job.

“We go to school to learn new things and keep current,” he said. “We also have salesmen come around and help keep us informed.”

That knowledge was put to the test last week.

“We went to work at 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning and didn’t quit until 6 p.m. Wednesday evening,” Duerksen said. “We worked for about 34 hours straight.”

Duerksen said Hillsboro city employees Joe Alvarez, Gary Andrews and Lee Krich were also part of the marathon crew.

“Those guys did almost everything except handle the hot work on the lines,” he said. “They’d get stuff, pull lines and do anything they could to help us.

“I guess they did the regular old grunt work.”

Had the line from Westar not failed to supply Hillsboro with electricity, Duerksen said there was a distinct possibility the power wouldn’t have failed at all.

“All of our problems were tree branches,” he said. “None of them were caused directly by ice. I think if we’d have had just the ice and not tree branches, I don’t think we’d have had a problem.”

But said the outage caused by Westar was out of the city’s control.

“Westar lost their transmission line somewhere between Florence and about seven miles south of town,” he said. “They shut that line down and rerouted us and brought power in from Moundridge.

“But when that was turned on Wednesday morning, it was only on for about 10 minutes and then they had a problem with their substation,” he added. “They melted down, there was a lot of smoke and two of the three phases melted.

“They finally brought us power in from McPherson.”

Problems precipitated by the Hillsboro lines though,were minimal.

“As far as our actual main lines, we only had one that went down-a tree split and fell right on it,” Duerksen said. “It was in an alley and knocked out four blocks each way.

“That tree would have been trimmed if the landowner would have let us on his property, but he didn’t want us to cut on this tree and that’s what happened.”

“But it’s trimmed now,” he added with a smile.

“At least now, hopefully people will realize that we trim trees because it’s necessary and not get quite so mad at us,” Duerksen said. “This shows why it’s not wise to plant a tree under an existing line either.”

Keeping busy while the supply lines were being fixed wasn’t a problem for Duerksen and his crew.

“We went out and got the branches and limbs off the lines and got people hooked back up, but we had to go back to each one and turn the meters on after we got our power back,” he said. “We actually had them all done before the power came back on.

“Then we went back and took limbs off lines where people didn’t lose their services or have a break,” he added. “Since we didn’t have any power at the time, it actually made it easier to do some of the additional trimming.”

Had the wind blown as hard as forecast (30 mph), Duerksen said the consequences would have been much worse.

“We felt the cold really come in at about 2 a.m. and the wind started to blow a little more then,” he said. “We could just hear the trees start popping.”

As it was, Duerksen said the dangers increased when the breeze combined with the weight of the ice.

“There were several times we almost got hit by falling limbs and branches,” he said. “As it was, our truck got hit several times.”

Keeping warm in sub-zero wind chills is nothing more than common sense, according to Duerksen.

“We just dress for it,” he said. “My face and hands got kind of cold-my face because it wasn’t covered, and my hands because you can only wear so much and still be able to do what you need to do with your hands.

“But if you dress right and keep active, it’s not that bad,” he said. “Those of us who drink coffee stayed warm that way, but several guys don’t drink the stuff.”

How the workers keep mentally sharp working such long hours is an issue of survival, according to Duerksen.

“You really have an adrenaline rush that keeps you going, but when you’re done, you kind of crash hard,” he said. “I woke up really stiff Thursday morning and I thought it was because of my age. But Randy, Todd and Gary all said the same thing.”

Calls for help from citizens were rerouted to Andrews Tuesday night and through the day Wednesday.

“I took over 100 calls on my cell phone during that time,” Andrews said.

For the most part, Duerksen said the residents of Hillsboro were intelligent in the way they handled the situation.

“We didn’t really have anybody who was a dummy and try to pick up a line,” he said. “The people really respected the lines and stayed a good distance from them.”

Duerksen said ice combined with wind is a lineman’s most formidable enemy-next to a tornado.

“If it took our poles down that would be worse, but this is about as bad as I hope it gets,” he said.

Storms are inevitable in Kansas, Duerksen said, but he was satisfied with his crew’s response.

“It could happen again and be worse the next time,” he said. “But we really were prepared for this as much as we could have been, and there’s not much we would have done differently.”

Duerksen said Hillsboro was back to near 100 percent service as of Thursday morning with the exception of “about 10 houses that had their service torn from the house and were waiting for an electrician to get hooked back up.”

While the impact of last week’s storm fade with thawing temperatures, resident of Hillsboro won’t have to worry that their homes will be dark very often.

“We’re really glad this one is over, but we have a heck of a lot of clean up to do because of it,” Duerksen said. “We have lots of branches and limbs, and there will probably still be things showing up yet come this summer.”

Facing adversity isn’t as bad when you can do it with a group of trained, dedicated workers, Duerksen said.

“I’m really lucky to have the crew and the help that I do,” he said. “They all did a great job. Nobody complained, they knew what had to be done and they did it.”

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