MECO linemen work to restore power to Paradise

A five-member Maui Electric Co. crew reframes a power pole recently in Paradise, Calif. Temperatures have ranged from a high of 54 degrees to a low of 38, but 26-year Maui lineman Sean Joaquin of Kahului said the island crew members are wearing long underwear to keep away the cold, and “now we’re getting used to it.” After working in Northern California since Nov. 28, the Maui crew is scheduled to return home Sunday. Hawaiian Electric Co. photos

A five-man Maui Electric Co. crew has been working 16-hour days, seven days a week since Nov. 28 to help restore power to the wildfire-ravaged community of Paradise, Calif.

“The Maui crew has been doing a great job,” said Hawaiian Electric Co. supervisor Pat O’Toole. “All the (Hawaii) crews are doing a fantastic job. . . . The islands should be very proud of how the crews are doing, representing our state and their families. I can’t say enough about the crews.”

Given the grueling work hours and cold weather conditions, it comes as a relief that, as of Tuesday evening, there had been no safety mishaps, said O’Toole and 26-year MECO lineman Sean Joaquin of Kahului.

“Knock on wood . . . nothing’s happened so far,” said Joaquin, 51.

Aside from Joaquin, the Maui crew includes foreman Hubert Kaina of Makawao and linemen Kaulana Anderson of Waihee, Micah Basbas of Waihee and Frank Kaauamo of Kula.

Maui Electric Co. lineman Micah Basbas of Waihee works overhead on a power pole recently in wildfire-devastated Paradise, Calif. The five-member Maui crew is one of five five-member crews from Hawaii — one each from Maui and the Big Island and three from Oahu.

Weather reports show that temperatures in Paradise over the past few days have ranged from a high of 54 degrees and an overnight low of 38 degrees.

“It’s been a little cold,” Joaquin said. But, “now we’re getting used to it.”

Linemen crews also are keeping the cold away by wearing long underwear, he said. The conditions are reminiscent of working in Upcountry areas, like Kula, he added.

Meanwhile, electric linemen are accustomed to working long hours, especially in emergencies, he said.

He noted that, after Tropical Storm Lane in August, Maui Electric crews worked long hours for two weeks to return electric service to West Maui.

However, fatigue remains something to watch out for, especially in risky procedures when stringing power lines on poles overhead.

“We always take care of each other,” Joaquin said. “We are each other’s brother’s keeper.”

That means working in shifts.

“We alternate a lot in the bucket and operating machinery,” he said, adding it’s necessary for each crew member to be honest about how tired he might be and that it would be safer for him to stay down on the ground for a while.

And, there’s always a safety coordinator on hand to remind the crew of best safety practices, Joaquin said.

“We’re looking after each other, rotating tasks,” O’Toole said.

Joaquin said the crew members have not interacted with Paradise residents, most of whom still have been unable to return to their homes or what’s left of them.

“Everywhere you look, there’s a lot of houses that are burned, a lot of destruction,” he said.

But the line crews remain focused on the tasks at hand. “We try not to let it bother us,” Joaquin said.

Obviously, the people of Paradise have suffered a “tremendous loss.”

“We want to get Paradise back up with electricity,” he said.

Earlier this month, some residents were allowed to return to town, much of it leveled by the wildfire four weeks earlier on Nov. 8. The fire killed at least 85 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes. The town has 27,000 residents.

The fire’s wind-driven flames consumed an area the size of Chicago, about 240 square miles. It became the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least a century.

Joaquin said he’s been working with a “good group of guys” with support from management and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

The California company has deployed inspectors who “get on the line with us and help us out,” he said, adding that the Maui crew recently completed work on a 36-span wire in combination with Hawaii crews and those from PG&E.

In the electric industry, every company has its own standards, and differences can be a challenge, he said.

But, “I think we got it squared away now,” he said. “We’re comfortable about their standards.”

The PG&E inspectors are communicating well with the Hawaii crews, he said.

As they work, the Hawaii crews learn new things from California power linemen and vice versa, Joaquin said.

“Everybody’s got a little trick up their sleeve,” he said. “They learn from us also. We showed them a couple of things that we do differently.”

Joaquin said that, overall, there are five five-member linemen crews from Hawaii: one each from Maui and the Big Island and three from Oahu.

The Maui crew returns home Sunday. Joaquin said the linemen can’t wait to see their loved ones.

“We miss them a lot,” he said, adding, “Thank you for the support. They support us a lot.”

And, the California residents who interact with the Hawaii linemen express their appreciation, as well, he said.

“When we meet people, they say they appreciate us coming over all the way from Hawaii,” he said.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.

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