Trees were felled, houses were flooded, power lines were down everywhere. Joe Clough won't soon forget what he saw. He was among 270 PG&E employees who had a firsthand view of the damage Superstorm Sandy left in its path in New York.
Clough, a Clayton resident, supervised a mutual-aid team that spent the past two weeks working 16-hour days helping Con Edison restore power to the Long Island community of Lido Beach.
"We encountered a lot of wind damage and downed poles," he said. "We worked in the rain and the snow -- it snowed about a foot while we were there. There was devastation everywhere."
When a weather catastrophe strikes, utility companies band together in the same way firefighters and law enforcement officers do during public safety emergencies. Utility crews from Wisconsin, Louisiana, Kentucky, Washington and beyond arrived en masse after Mother Nature left much of East Coast powerless.
"At one point," Clough said, "there were 10,000 linemen and tree trimmers on Long Island."
PG&E's full complement of volunteers -- yes, workers volunteer for these assignments -- were pulled from crews throughout its service area and spanned a wide realm of specialties, including troubleshooting, damage assessment, maintenance and construction. Clough said he knew most of the personnel on his team.
Hours were long, meals were brief and sleep was the only respite between one double shift and the next. The routine, he said, was "work all day, sleep, work all day, sleep" and then more of the same.
The reward came in seeing the appreciation of residents. A nod of the head, a wave of thanks and an occasional smile made each damp, cold day worthwhile.
"When you get there and see folks in the state they're in -- being out of power for upwards of 13 days, their homes ruined and the holidays coming up -- any little bit you can do to help them get back to normal is what you want to do."
Every mutual-aid mission requires some degree of adjustment, he said, but many members of his 70-person crew were old hands at fitting in. He cited previous missions to Hawaii after severe storm damage and in San Diego in the aftermath of devastating wildfires.
"The voltage we dealt with was different than at home," he said, "and so was some of the construction. But once you got used to it, everything was fine. These guys are journeyman linemen. They're skilled professionals. It only took a few days to figure everything out and get going."
The hardest part was not the work. It was seeing the hardships thrust upon the victims.
"We were in and around the community all day long," he said. "It was tough to witness what they were going through. There were areas that were underwater. There were homes that were condemned. In some places, saltwater contamination prohibited them from receiving electricity.
"On the last day we were there, the group I was with took up donations and made a contribution to a church to help those in need for Thanksgiving. I think the impact of it all hit everyone."
He had earned some time off. Clough said he knew how he planned to use it.
"I'm spending time with my family," he said. "I've got a wife and a 15-year-old son I haven't seen in a couple weeks and a college freshman who will be flying home Monday.
"I'm going to appreciate the fact that we can have a Thanksgiving."
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.