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Utility crews stream into Florida for hurricane payday, adventure

Stock MarketsSep 09, 2017 04:20PM ET
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© Reuters. Nick Chilelli, 48, waits in a convoy of utility repair trucks on US Highway 27 near Orlando

By Brian Thevenot

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - Nick Chilelli had been driving his utility truck with a broken air conditioner for about 18 hours, all the way from Cincinnati, when his convoy got trapped behind a car wreck just outside Orlando, Florida, at about 2 a.m. Saturday morning.

They were among thousands of line workers racing through the night to stage their trucks and tools for Hurricane Irma, a monstrous storm expected to knock out power to half of the nation's third most-populous state.

They had been told to expect to work at least a month of straight 16-hour days, with no breaks, trying to restore power to millions of homes.

Many of the journeyman linemen, as their union calls them, savored both the financial opportunity and the adventure of racing into a historic hurricane.

"I'll probably make 30 grand this month," said Chilelli, 48. "Everybody out here is killing it. Of course, you're dealing with something that could kill you any minute."

He has good use for the money. As he chased work in the storm, Chilelli left his wife behind with a new foster child, 11-month old Gage.

A far bigger threat to the electric grid than Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Irma threatens to knock out power to more than 4.1 million homes and businesses served by Florida Power & Light, affecting about 9 million people.

"Everyone in Florida will be impacted in some way by this storm," FPL Chief Executive Officer Eric Silagy said on Friday, preparing the utility's customers for a multiweek restoration process.

The NextEra Energy Inc (NYSE:NEE) unit is Florida's biggest power company, serving almost half of the state's 20.6 million residents. Utilities handling the rest of the state, including units of Duke Energy Corp (NYSE:DUK), Southern Co and Emera Inc, have not yet estimated potential outages, which are likely to be substantial.

The utility workers whom FPL deployed shared their storm stories as they waited for more than an hour early on Saturday morning for authorities to clear an accident west of Orlando on U.S. Highway 27.

FPL had already amassed about 5,000 trucks in a staging area in Lake City, in northern Florida near Jacksonville, the utility workers said, just the first of legions more trucks and workers needed to restore the grid.

This is one example of the economic jolt from the enormous rebuilding process required after a storm of Irma's magnitude.

"It's a good gig - big bucks - we're all union contractors" with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said Brian Wilson, 34, who rode in the truck in front of Chilelli in the stalled convoy. "You never want to see a disaster, but it's good for me."

The utility repair workers typically make about $50 an hour, which jumps to $75 for overtime and $100 on Sundays, Chilelli said.

Wilson, who is from North Andover, Massachusetts, drove in Friday morning with 30-year-old Russ Konicke from Connecticut, where the two had been working.

"It's my first hurricane," said Konicke, who is from Fairbanks, Alaska. "I just became a journeyman lineman last year."

The industry appealed to Konicke, in part because of the adventure of traveling the nation chasing storms and work. In Connecticut, he lived out of his car and a tiny tent - really, just a boxy cover on a cot - while he spent his money exploring New England.

He also likes working outside in the weather, which made the journey into the hurricane all the more tantalizing.

"I'm really excited about it," Konicke said. "It's a completely new experience ... I've been in extreme cold and extreme heat, and now extreme wind."

Utility crews stream into Florida for hurricane payday, adventure

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