NEW YORK (Reuters) - On the 19th floor of Consolidated Edison's Manhattan headquarters, the veteran lineman briefing a roomful of 100 out-of-town utility workers had a lot of advice, from the practical to the profane.
"Be careful," he said, conscious that half of those in the room -- most of whom had driven over 1,000 miles to aid in the biggest U.S. power recovery effort ever -- had never set foot in New York City before. "We have all kinds of people here."
He cautioned them to lock their vehicles or things would disappear. He briefed them on storm damage and clean-up strategy, and warned them of the heavy stench of diesel fumes across lower Manhattan, which was still being power by hundreds of generators after Hurricane Sandy delivered a knock-out blow to the city's power network.
And for the younger, single men in their midst: "If you pick up a woman, be sure it's a woman."
It was familiar patter for Glenn Nicholas and his co-workers from New Orleans, who had been to New York before to train with Con Edison. They had returned this week to "repay a debt," said Nicholas, 54, an operations coordinator with Entergy Corp who has worked on power lines for 34 years.
"When Katrina hit, we tried to handle it alone, and it was too big," he said. "We reached out to Con Ed, and they saved our butts." So when the New York utility company called last Monday as the storm was hammering the region "we volunteered."
The New Orleans workers are among an estimated 64,000 linemen, transmission and distribution workers, network technicians and tree trimmers from Canada and across the U.S. helping the East Cost clean up after Sandy, part of an unprecedented effort under the "mutual aid" systems that form critical links in the industry's emergency-response planning.
By Sunday, the storm had left at least 113 dead in North America, nearly 2 million still without power and as much as $50 billion in losses. It may be another week or longer before power is fully restored, despite the thousands of crews that have descended on the region from as far away as California.
In terms of the number of workers and distances traveled, the past week's mobilization effort is without equal, said Brian Wolff, a senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), an industry trade group that set up the first major mutual aid group in 1964 and still coordinates nationally.
'PAY IT FORWARD'
While many such groups emerged in the 1960s as the rapidly growing U.S. energy system showed the need for more coordinated, collective efforts to address emergencies, the need to borrow personnel in times of crises has intensified since the 1990s, as deregulation put utilities under more pressure to tame costs.
Maintaining a larger, redundant workforce as back-up for crises became untenable. Yet increasingly frequent extreme weather events have made the need for emergency action more common.
There are now nine major regional mutual-aid groups (RMAGs) for the electric industry across the country, all of which are involved in assisting with the Sandy clean-up, the EEI says.
The groups convene by phone when one or more members seek aid, with "requesting" utilities putting forth their estimated needs and others in the group offering resources.
"This is one of the things where you like to pay it forward," said Don Matthews, the former director of mutual aid Houston-based CenterPoint Energy. "Eventually, you are going to need the help. You don't know when or where, but when you do, you always have (it)."
When Con Edison put out the call a week ago, they knew Entergy had employees trained to handle below-surface work, critical for helping clean up the 14-foot (4.3-meter) storm surge that pushed corrosive salt water across a swathe of southern Manhattan, damaging electrical systems.
By 6 a.m. on Tuesday, Nicholas and nine others were driving to New York with five trucks; in total almost 900 Entergy workers have filed into the region. Even though they arrived on Friday, just as power returned to the most populous city in the nation, they may remain in town for weeks helping repair damage.
AVOIDING REGULATORY IRE
The requesting utilities bear the cost of bringing in emergency crews -- which can quickly run into the many millions of dollars a day with labor, travel expenses, lodging, meals -- and have to weigh their requests carefully.
Any surplus support can typically be quickly redeployed to other areas in need. In a few rare instances, utilities have recalled crews from stricken areas to tend to repairs at home.
But those companies that do not move quickly enough to get the lights back on after a disaster risk a fierce rebuke from customers and financial penalties from state overseers.
Connecticut Light & Power's president resigned and its regulator may deny an increase in rates after last year's unprecedented double-blow of Tropical Storm Irene and a surprise Halloween nor'easter, which caused $300 million in damage.
A subsequent study commissioned by CL&P faulted it for, among other things, being slow to request mutual aid.
This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo warned utilities that he would seek to revoke the operating permits or fire the management of any utility that had failed "to keep (its) part of the bargain" through a lack of preparation or response.
"Mutual assistance is like any outsourcing of a business' critical core functions," said energy consultant Steve Mitnick, president of Build Energy America, in Washington, DC, a group that lobbies for power infrastructure investment.
"There's a real tradeoff," he said. "Mutual assistance has kept electric bills low. On the other hand, full-time utility employees on-premises enables immediate response by a workforce intimately familiar with the local infrastructure."
NOT FOR THE MONEY
The utility workers earn their usual wages, and the pay quickly adds up with 16 hour days and 7-day work weeks. It is not unusual to earn an extra $10,000 after a few weeks on a site.
But many say that is not the primary reason they take the work, especially because conditions after a storm could be some of the worst. It is not unusual to have freezing cold or sweltering heat or to sleep in "tent cities" if hotel rooms are not available. By Saturday, with New York area hotels packed with workers and regional refugees, Nicholas and his team were sleeping on army cots in a nearby boat.
"No problem, just part of the job," he says.
It is also dangerous, which is one reason why host companies provide safety and security orientations to visiting crews before they get to work. Many trucks carry valuable equipment and costly copper wiring, often in dark areas, a lure for thieves, while poisonous snakes or alligators pose hazards elsewhere.
David Geran, an Entergy Corp operations coordinator from Little Rock, Arkansas, knows the risks of his profession go far beyond the truck.
In a wooded part of Sicklerville, New Jersey, about 40 miles inland from the state's devastated shore, his six-man crew tackled the relatively simple job of re-hanging fallen wires that had blacked out four houses, a task that still took hours.
Geran, 58, talked about his experience as a young lineman, when his face was badly burned after a moment's inattention on a utility pole. His father-in-law, a lineman, lost a forearm - but went back to work with a prosthetic hook in its place.
"We are a village that will do whatever it takes to get your lights on - because they're going to be coming to help us one day, and they have," he said. His team, working on behalf of Atlantic City Electric, had briefly paused their work to make way for six tree-trimmers -- from Florida.
FROM BIG EASY TO BIG APPLE
When the linemen take off across the country, rushing into a disaster area that many residents would rather leave, they do not know whether it will be for a few days or weeks.
Some workers celebrated Halloween this week with emailed pictures of kids from home. They wondered how they would be able to vote in the presidential election on Tuesday. After surveying the damage, a few also wondered if they would be home for Thanksgiving.
Geran said he knew he knew the devastation was bad when the logistics coordinators offered laundry services, which kick in for jobs lasting more than five days.
Nicholas was looking forward to getting to work. Unlike New Orleans after 2005's Katrina -- a city that was wet and filthy but also largely empty except for law enforcement, rescue workers and repair crews -- New York remains full of residents who have been stuck in darkened apartments, anxious to get out again.
"The best feeling for any linemen is getting the lights back on," he said, adding: "I love New York. It's kind of like New Orleans, just way bigger."