SMU linemen head to Florida for Irma recovery effort

It could take weeks to restore power after hurricane

Florida utility officials, expecting to need all the help they can get restoring services in the wake of Hurricane Irma, put out a nationwide call for assistance this week, and linemen from Shawano Municipal Utilities are among those who have stepped up to respond.

Irma threatens to knock out power to more than 4.1 million homes and businesses served by Florida Power & Light, affecting around 9 million people based on the storm track late Friday.

It is being called a monster storm, and even a “nuclear” one by some officials. It is forecast to hit southern Florida as a Category 4 hurricane early Sunday before tearing northward across the state.

Twelve utility companies from around Wisconsin are sending lineman to assist with what is expected to be a massive job of repairing damage and getting power up and running again.

Three of those linemen will be from SMU.

Aaron Retzlaff and Gage Wainio left for Florida on Friday morning. Adam Carroll will be on his way Sunday morning.

“It’s a chance to help out people in need and be part of the restoration effort,” Carroll said.

All five of the utility’s linemen offered to go, but, line crew superintendent Robert Koepp said, at least two needed to stay available here in case any problems come up.

SMU has sent linemen to assist in other hurricane recovery efforts — including Katrina and Sandy — but this will be the first such trip for Retzlaff, Wainio and Carroll.

“I’m just ready to be there and start working,” said Carroll, a 13-year veteran at SMU.

The trio is expected to be away for at least two weeks, which also made volunteering a family decision.

“They’re supportive,” Carroll said. “It’s hard on them, but this is a family effort. It’s not just us; it’s them back home.”

Koepp said the willingness to assist Florida in its time of need speaks well of the SMU linemen.

“It shows the character of the people we have working here,” Koepp said. “They’re putting their lives on hold for two weeks. It raises your esteem that people are willing to do that. It makes you feel good.”

The linemen will gather and stage their operations from Pensacola, which is on the western edge of the Florida panhandle. From there, the linemen will be sent wherever they are needed.

“It could be anywhere in Florida is what we’ve been told,” Koepp told the staff before they left.

They’ll work 16-hour days with eight hours of rest in between.

Koepp said the biggest challenge will likely be figuring out how to get around.

“Safety is a top priority for the SMU crew, at home or on the road,” he said.

“There are plenty of unknowns about this trip,” Koepp said. “They don’t know what kind of damage will be done. It might be a total rebuild of the distribution system. It might not just be restoration. They might need help rebuilding their system if it hits as bad as it might. You always hope that maybe it won’t be that bad.”