From ice storms to hurricanes: On the front lines of mutual assistance

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For many of the linemen working in Puerto Rico, this isn’t their first brush with restoring power after a natural disaster.

Fallen transmission tower in Quebec, Canada during the North American Ice Storm of ’98.

Along the circuits, you’ll hear workers swapping stories about climbing poles in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or hanging lines along the East Coast following Superstorm Sandy.

For a handful of DTE Energy linemen, their “war stories” date a little further back than others.

John Celusnak, Jeff Hazel, Carl Kapanka, Steve Stark, Joe Gillon and Jim Kuehnlein – all a part of DTE’s Puerto Rico team – couldn’t help but reminisce over the last time they had spent nearly a month working together during one of DTE’s mutual assistance trips.

It was January of 1998 when northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada experienced one of the most devastating ice storms to hit North America. Five consecutive days of freezing rain caused more than 1 million people to lose power, created billions of dollars’ worth of damage and claimed more than 40 lives.

The North American Ice Storm of ‘98 especially devastated the Canadian providence of Quebec, where an entire electrical system essentially collapsed under the extreme weather conditions.

DTE responded to the life-threatening outage by sending trucks, materials and linemen hundreds of miles from Michigan to the neighboring country.

“A few of us [linemen] were watching the news about the ice storm just after the holidays,” said John Celusnak, a DTE Energy linemen based out of the Mount Clemens service center. “We knew it was bad, but we never imagined they would call us out to Quebec to go work.”

The ice had built inches thick around tree branches, electrical lines and steel towers. Whole limbs of fully-mature trees snapped under the pressure of the cold weight, crashing onto cars, homes and power lines. Transmission towers were bent in half, and downed wires were buried under inches of ice.

By the time crews had reached their work site, they couldn’t believe the magnitude of the damage. Nothing was left standing. The entire electrical system was lying on the ground.

“Conductor normally the size of my pinky was now the size of my forearm,” said Celusnak. “You could see why everything was on the ground.”

DTE crews worked for nearly 28 days in Quebec to help reinstall utility poles, fix fallen transmission towers, dig out and rehang power lines, and restore power to people who were forced out of their homes.

“By far the ultimate reward of any trip is when you get the lights back on,” said Celusnak. “That’s the only thing that matters. In Quebec, it was pretty incredible to see people able to go back to their home. It has been the same kind of impact here in Puerto Rico.”

While Celusnak and the other guys had been on several, if not dozens, of mutual assistance trips in the nearly 20 years between Quebec and Puerto Rico, he said that it’s the big storms that stick in your head. And despite the extreme difference in weather conditions, he said that the challenges of working in Puerto Rico are similar to those he experienced in Quebec.

“The wires on the ground here are almost like being under ice,” said Celusnak. “The vines are so thick around it that you can’t see it and it’s hard to get up.”

He also mentioned similarities with communication barriers. Much like the Spanish-speaking rural parts of Puerto Rico crews are currently working in, many of the residents in Quebec only spoke French, making it difficult to talk with residents.

Despite the inability to converse, Celusnak noted the universal language of hope and gratitude. Residents of Quebec had offered food, water and plenty of “merci beaucoup” messages. Crews have experienced the same hospitability in Puerto Rico, sitting down to lunches with entire communities, accepting coffee and water from neighbors, and sharing emotion-filled hugs with residents excited to turn their lights back on for the first time in months.

Celusnak and the other DTE employees in Puerto Rico are reaching the end of their 30 days on the island. On Feb. 23, a second wave of 80-plus DTE employees will replace the first set of crews to complete the company’s 60-day commitment to the island. Crews have restored power to thousands of Puerto Rico residents and continue to make progress each day.