Saturday 27 December 2014

Storm clean-up: 'My staff would go through brick wall to get the power back'

Published 19/02/2014 | 02:30

The council built this scaffolding foot bridge for Mickey Morgan from Skehanagh, South Galway
Sean and Mary Collins, from Skehanagh, South Galway, have been stranded in their homes. Picture: Hany Marzouk
Frank O'Donnell and Joe Shannon at work in a cherrypicker in Tralee. Photo: Domnick Walsh
ESB staff Gerard Dineehan and John Quirke working in the ESB head office in Tralee . Photo: Domnick Walsh
ESB staff member John Kelly gets food ready for the workers out in the field. Photo: Domnick Walsh
The landslide in Ballybunion, Co Kerry. BILLY HORGAN/EYE FOCUS

Maura Bunyan comes out of the ESB offices at The Basin in Tralee carrying two black refuse sacks.

"It's the laundry," she explains helpfully.

Usually 32 staff work out of the Tralee base. This week that number has swelled to 150, deployed from Killybegs, Letterkenny, Castlebar, Galway, Tuam and Dublin to where they're needed most.

Most thought they might be around for a day or two to fix the remaining faults on the power lines, but two days has turned into 10 and the washing of clothes is just another thing that needs to be organised.

In that time they've been away from their families and most won't get to go home until this weekend.

But even local staff have hardly seen their loved ones since before Christmas.

And it's a similar situation in Killarney, Newcastle West and Tipperary, where most of the 5,000 people who are still without power since last Wednesday's storms live.

Inside the canteen, the table is full of boxes of sandwiches and some buns and biscuits that are delivered to the crews that have been working from dawn till dusk to reconnect those still without power.

At night a hot meal is provided in Kerins O'Rahilly's GAA clubhouse with the Carlton Hotel catering for the overflow before the workers retire for the night.

On the counter in the office, a card from the children from Feileacan Preschool near Finuge in north Kerry that says, 'A Big Thank You', has pride of place.

"It's things like that that keep morale up," says Cormac Collins, manager of the Tralee ESB office.

"But in fairness, most people have been very understanding and appreciative when power is restored."

Yesterday, extra crews travelled from the UK and Northern Ireland to help ESB Networks, with over 270 extra linesmen arriving.

By this evening, just over 5,000 customers will be without power nationwide, bringing to 8,000 the total number of customers to have their power restored over the past 24 hours.

Kieran Kelly is an ESB construction manager. His day began at 6am and he probably won't see home again until midnight. It is his job to coordinate the operation and get everyone to where they're needed.

In the control room, John Quirke and Tom Lynch are pinpointing the faults on two big computer screens on a system that keeps on overheating and crashing.

Still, they manage to carry out their duties with good humour and patience as they deal with the 400 calls each day, before they are officially closed by Mary Fitzgerald and David O'Connell, whose workstation is nearby.

Ger Deenihan is the technical services manager for the midwest, an area that stretches from the Dingle Peninsula to the Aran Islands.

He's fiercely proud of his crews who haven't stopped since the first storm hit on December 18.

"They'd go through a brick wall to find the fault and get the power back. They take huge pride in their work, it's just that we've been overwhelmed since Wednesday and we've had to get backup," he said.

DAMAGE

And that backup includes damage assessors, patrollers, timber contractors, and then, of course, the network technicians who repair the lines.

On site in Clahane near Ballyard outside Tralee, local technicians Frank O'Donnell, Joe Shanahan and former Kerry footballer John Higgins were just waiting for the timber cutters to arrive and allow them get on with their work of repairing the lines.

The job was typical of what's left to be done – mending faults in rural locations that affect less than 10 customers.

Typically, they will do about five of these a day before clocking off at 10pm or 11pm – that's provided the poles weren't damaged and need to be replaced.

"We're fairly jaded now alright," says John. "Our wives, Liz, Eileen and Valerie, have hardly seen us. I think they're getting worried about us with the long hours."

Co Donegal-based Northern Tree Services arrive to cut the overhanging branches that are causing the problem.

Gerard Curran and Thomas Cassidy from Glencolmcille arrived in Kerry on Thursday. They hope to head back to Donegal at the weekend to see their families.

Then it will be back down for the cleanup operation that's expected to take a further two weeks.

This morning, these men and women at the frontline will do the same thing all over again.

They will hopefully get some well-deserved rest this weekend – that is, of course, once power has been restored to the very last customer.

Irish Independent

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