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Published November 17 2012

Repairing power in NYC rewarding, frustrating for North Dakota man

CARRINGTON, N.D. – On Brad Weninger’s first trip to New York, the days were long, the work was treacherous and a cot in an empty office building qualified as luxury accommodations.

The Otter Tail Power lineman from Carrington was among 17 people from the company who agreed to travel to the East Coast to help with recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. He and his co-workers returned home Friday after spending two weeks helping to get the storm-swept city’s lights back on.

“It was frustrating and rewarding all at the same time,” said Weninger in a phone interview last week. “It’s been a great experience.”

The Otter Tail crew worked in Long Island, one the areas of the city hit hardest by the storm.

On their first night in town, they slept in sleeping bags in their trucks. At one point, they tried tents but were thwarted by strong winds. They didn’t have showers for nearly a week, and subsisted on cold sandwiches and pizza whenever they could spare a moment, said Stephanie Hoff, an Otter Tail Power spokeswoman.“It’s pretty tough working conditions out there,” she said.

Hoff said it’s normal for utilities nationwide to assist one another in times of disaster. The Otter Tail group was among tens of thousands of utility workers working to restore power in storm-ravaged areas. Repairing power lines is dangerous, specialized work, she said.

“You can’t just send anybody out there,” she said.

Weninger said the “mass devastation” meant it was back to the basics, like digging holes by hand when trucks couldn’t get through the debris.

“It’s back to old-school line work,” he said.

Lisa Weninger, Brad’s wife, said her husband and his colleagues put in 16-hour days.

“I was kind of teasing him because they’re not used to working 16-hour days,” she said of her 37-year-old husband. “When they asked for volunteers, they might have meant younger guys.”

She said the workers sometimes garnered mixed reactions. Many locals were grateful and brought coffee and snacks. After Brad and his crew restored power to one home, the first thing the family’s girls did was bake cookies for the workers.

But others, generally frustrated with the response to the storm, yelled or signaled obscenities at workers when things weren’t going well.

“They haven’t had power, they haven’t had water, just imagine the frustration,” she said. “He said, ‘We just have to keep remembering that.’ ”

Brad Weninger said he volunteered for the trip because he knew families like his own were hurting.

“You have a million-plus people out of power,” he said. “You need a lot of manpower.”

And in his time there, he saw at least one reliable indicator of recovery: When he first arrived in a caravan of vehicles with flashing lights, other cars moved over to let him through.

“By the end of the week,” he said, “when everybody had the power back on, they were cutting us off just like regular New Yorkers.”


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