Fairfield Electric Co-op linemen head to Louisiana – and into harm’s way

Fairfield Electric Cooperative linemen who left for Lake Charles, Louisiana before daybreak Sunday morning are, from left: Hunter Dean, Fedward Richmond, Evan Douglas, Ryan Hunnicutt, Zack Lewis, Bubba Tanner, Cliff Collins, Michael Robinson, Eugene Talford and Todd Frick. | Barbara Ball

BLYTHEWOOD – In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, one by one, 10 Fairfield Electric Cooperative linemen began pulling their pickup trucks up to the big sliding gate that leads to the bucket truck garage area of the company’s Blythewood headquarters.

As the men hauled luggage, boots and other gear from their pickup trucks onto the floor of the garage and then into bucket trucks, crew leader Bubba Tanner handed out new hats and tee shirts imprinted with the company’s logo.

A few minutes later, the linemen climbed into seven bucket trucks and slowly pulled onto Blythewood road. The big white caravan then turned south onto I-77.

Their destination was Lake Charles, Louisiana, where they would spend the next two weeks helping a sister cooperative in Lake Charles, Jeff Davis Electric Cooperative, rebuild hundreds of transmission towers, repair substations and reset thousands of power poles and lines downed by Hurricane Laura four days earlier.

Making landfall as a category 4 storm, Laura had lashed the Gulf Coast from Port Arthur, Texas to Cameron, Louisiana with 150 mph winds and a 20-foot surge of ocean. It was the strongest storm system to hit the area in generations, killing at least 3 people in Louisiana (14 across its path) with damage estimated between $8 and $12 billion in Louisiana alone.

Lake Charles was one of the areas hit the hardest.

Downed power lines in Lake Charles, LA. | Contributed

“It’s my understanding that the entire system of Jeff Davis is with out power – none of their members had power after the storm,” Fairfield Electric’s Doug Payne, Vice President of Member Services,  told The Voice.

Talking about the linemen’s mission, Bruce Bacon, CEO of Fairfield Electric, called it dangerous. He said the crew will work 12-hour days, from sun up until sun down, every day for two weeks under the most difficult of circumstances in the merciless, muggy Louisiana heat.

“Then we’ll bring them back and probably fly a fresh crew down to switch out,” Bacon said. “It’s dangerous work, and we worry about them getting tired and having accidents. It’s going to be at least eight weeks to get power restored to everyone, so we may be sending down more than one other crew.”

The Fairfield crew is one of hundreds from around the country that have converged on Lake Charles, according to Bacon. Photos of the staging area around Lake Charles’ Burton Coliseum show a sea of bucket trucks that have been sent to aid Jeff Davis Cooperative and its members.

“We always want to help cooperatives in other states because we know that, at some point, we could need help and we would hope they would come help us,” Bacon said. “Even now, in the midst of COVID-19, which makes things a little bit more precarious as far as what they have to do, we certainly want to help. I talk to our guys every day. They’re setting poles and working long days.”

They’ve also texted back photos of forging through downed trees and wading into storm water to do their work.

“Some of our contracting company’s like Lee Electric also sent crews,” Payne said. “They (Jeff Davis Cooperative) need all they help they can get to restore power as quickly and as safely as possible. It’s hard work. Trees are down all over where the crews are having to rebuild the entire system,” he said.

Payne said Fairfield Electric was eager to help and he commended the crew for going.

“Our guys had been working all week and then to head out Sunday morning for this – they’re a good crew,” Payne said.

Hunter Dean and Evan Douglas on site in Lake Charles, Louisiana.