Highland Lakes residents might have been shivering in their homes without power during the big February freeze, but Pedernales Electric Cooperative linemen were climbing poles in single-digit temperatures during snow and ice storms to turn the heat back on.
“It was something we’ve never dealt with here,” said PEC journey worker and regional operations Supervisor Seth Shelburn when asked about the winter storm that hit Texas on Feb. 14-19. “With everyone home and all the heaters on, we had wires and cable melting.”
The work was grueling, and most of the linemen had to leave their families at home without heat or electricity while they put in 16-hour shifts outdoors to warm us all back up. It’s work they are proud to do and don’t get a lot of thanks for, which might be why the U.S. Senate established National Lineman Appreciation Day in 2013.
Senate Resolution 95 of the 113th Congress designated April 18 as a time to recognize that “linemen are often first responders during storms and other catastrophic events, working to make the scene safe for other public safety heroes.” It was approved in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast in 2012.
According to Shelburn, Highland Lakes residents showed plenty of appreciation during the February storm.
“People brought us food; everyone really came together,” he said. “Out on Mormon Mill Road at about 10:30 one night in 5-degree weather, a woman made pizza and brought it out to us. It made us feel good.”
Well trained to face lightning storms and other weather events isolated to one area for a few hours, utility workers dealt with below-freezing temperatures and ice and snow storms that lasted almost a week.
“This was widespread throughout the whole region,” Shelburn said. “We had to run two-man crews and try to cover our whole 8,100-square-mile territory. We’ve never had to deal with something systemwide like this before.”
Not knowing what they would find when called out was another major challenge.
“With a lightning storm, we know what’s out there and we go out and fix it and get on down the road,” he said. “This time, we never knew if it was a tree down on a line, a pole down, or if an overhead conductor was down. In one place, five poles were broken.”
The trials and tribulations didn’t end with the thaw; they just morphed.
“The infrastructure was trying to hold up ice that was sometimes as big as a soda can,” Shelburn said. “When it started to thaw, the bottom line would drop the ice and flop up onto the top line, which is a hot line, and burn the line down.”
The thaw also left everything wet and muddy.
“This was an all-hands-on-deck event,” said Shelburn, giving a nod of his own appreciation to the trainees who stepped in and stepped up to face hardships and situations they had never experienced before.
They did their jobs well and without a single injury.
“We mold them into safe employees, and, watching them shine in this event, it made us so proud,” Shelburn continued. “It was an awesome feeling.”
The driving concern for every one of the PEC linemen was getting electricity back on for all 351,340 utility accounts.
“We are all part of the cooperative,” Shelburn said. “We are members, not customers. When it’s zero degrees and you are out of power, well, we all depend on that. It’s our job to get the lights back on.”