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Out-of-state utility crews help out on LI

A utility worker works on an overhead line

A utility worker works on an overhead line in Patchogue. (Nov. 4, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

This wasn't the first road trip for most of the out-of-state utility workers aiding Suffolk County's rebound from the ravages of superstorm Sandy.

Most say this is what they live for. There are the 16-hour workdays, a fast-food diet and nights in strange hotel rooms, but there's also the satisfaction in making a difference -- helping people recover from a natural disaster.

Johnny Sanchez, 44, of Long Beach, Calif., started the year doing repairs in Oregon, in the aftermath of a powerful winter storm.

When a crisis hits, he gets the call because his bosses at Asplundh, a private firm doing contract work for utilities such as the Long Island Power Authority, know he'll go.

"Whenever there's a big storm, the head guy in the office will call me up directly," Sanchez said during a pizza break in a parking lot behind St. Nicholas Shrine Greek Orthodox Church in West Babylon.

On Thursday, Sanchez and a dozen other imported utility workers from Asplundh were on the job, stringing a new power line over Great East Neck Road at Nill Street.

Ben Opalewski, 51, also from Southern California, said he's been taking out-of-town emergency assignments for 29 years. "They got a storm coming in? I'll come work it," he said.

All the workers who would talk said they were veteran travelers, willing to leave on short notice for grueling jobs that can last weeks.

"This is my second trip to Long Island. I was here for Irene last year," said Russ Miller, 47, of Dayton, Ohio. "I'm out of state about eight, 10 times a year."

Miller, like the others on the crew, has no children at home. But his wife, Cathy, still worries.

"She calls every day. In fact, she's buzzing right now just to make sure I'm safe," he said as his cellphone vibrated in a pocket of his work pants.

Tom Keane, 67, who lived in Wading River until 2007, retired from LIPA's predecessor, the Long Island Lighting Co., in 1984 to work for private contractors, then bought a house on the Gulf of Mexico in Perdido Bay, Ala. But he still does emergency work.

"I like coming back [to Long Island], especially for storms," Keane said. "I like storms. I like the fact you put power back on for people. It's exciting. The compensation is OK, too."

That sense of accomplishment -- plus the overtime money -- is a big motivator for the people who do this dangerous work.

Joseph Ferrari, a social psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago, said crisis-seeking utility crews are like other first responders, such as firefighters. "And people who jump out of planes and don't pull the rip cord until the last moment," he added.

"There are a lot of motives for why people go out and help people," Ferrari said. "One is they feel that if they help people, it will come back and help them some day."

"Engaging in a difficult challenge and overcoming it can be enormously gratifying, especially when you have special skills and don't find it very motivating to use them only for routine tasks," offered Martin Ford, a psychologist who teaches at George Mason University near Washington, D.C.

Rick Shaw, 63, of London, Ohio, played the role of grizzled cynic on the Suffolk crew.

Shaw said he liked the pizza on Long Island, but the people he could take or leave, underscoring his point with a few expletives.

"Most people are decent," he said, "but you're going to get a few, well . . . "

Miller offered a more charitable view of the people he's serving.

"Overall, they're fairly nice to us," he said.

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