Storm Troopers

Morning on the interstate. I’m passing a caravan of large white bucket trucks. There must be a hundred of them. Maybe more. These are utility line workers, heading for the Carolinas.

Tropical Storm Isaias is brewing in the Atlantic. It will make landfall tomorrow morning. These trucks are heading for ground zero, and there isn’t even a ground zero yet.

The trucks’ running lights are flashing. Their hydraulic lift buckets wobble from highway speed.

These men in neon vests prepare for weeks of sleepless nights, mechanical failures, possible accidents, wet weather, convenience-store suppers, cheap hotels, and video calls home.

I honk my horn. I wave at one driver. We are both driving at a high speed. The lineman waves back.

And the convoy of trucks never stops coming. After only a few minutes on this highway I’ve counted almost 60 trucks. I finally quit because I lose count.

I live on the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes are part of our life. When Opal hit, for instance, it crippled us. But it took only 24 hours for hordes of electrical lineworkers to arrive in town so we could all run our air conditioners again and watch daytime television.

They came from far-off places like Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. My aunt was so grateful to linemen working on her street that she made sandwiches each morning for them.

She delivered food every day until they left town. She knew all the guys’ names. She could tell you all about their kids.

And I’ll never forget when Hurricane Ivan smashed into our area.

I was a newlywed, living in a one-bedroom apartment. Our building had no storm shutters. All we could do was cover our windows in duct tape to prevent shattering.

Friends lost homes, cars, animals, trees. Ivan pommeled us like we’d insulted his mother.

The next morning, our world was flooded, but not with water; with bucket trucks. Men in hardhats arrived from all over the country to bring us back to life again.

So that’s why I’m honking my horn and waving.

I pass another parade of utility vehicles on the highway. They have license plates from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Half the world is quarantined, a virus is running rampant, and these men are speeding into a storm, ready to face perdition.

Lineworkers have one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Out of every 100,000 workers, 30 to 50 die. Some are victims of explosions. Others lose limbs or get burned. Electrical work is not for sissies.

My friend Chad’s father is a retired lineman. Chad said he grew up going to too many funerals. He was always wondering if the next memorial service would be for his father.

As it happens, I was once invited to a utility line worker’s funeral a few years ago. The mother of the deceased invited me and asked me to write something about the service.

I couldn’t do it. I still can’t. It was a man’s life. My ten-cent words would have only cheapened it. You’ve never seen so many roughened outdoorsmen in neckties.

When Hurricane Michael hit, the eye of the storm made landfall 30 miles from my front door, decimating Mexico Beach, leveling Panama City, and ruining our old stomping grounds.

Suddenly, Panama City was all over national news. The same Panama City where we bought groceries and stocked up on school supplies. The same town where we all went on dates.

I once took Mary Herrington to ride roller coasters at Miracle Strip Amusement Park. She got food poisoning from a cheap hot dog and ruined the interior of my ‘86 Ford Ranger. I was sixteen. Mary never returned my calls.

The night Michael ruined the world I was out of town. The next morning, I sped home as fast as I could. The only problem was: everyone else did, too. I was stuck in a traffic jam stretching from Tennessee to the Panhandle. We sat for six hours.

About midday I saw orange flashing lights in my rear view mirror. A long line of bucket trucks cut between crowded lanes of traffic. Diesels rumbling. Cars pulled to the shoulder to let them pass.

It was a sight that moved me deeply. Because this wasn’t happening on headline news, or in some remote city. These men were heading toward our home. To help our families. Our friends. Us.

I remember passing one particular truck in standstill traffic that afternoon. The driver was young, his window rolled down. He was sunburned and lean as a two-by-four. Music blared on his stereo. He spit into a Mountain Dew bottle.

I rolled down my window and asked where he was from.

“New Jersey,” he said.

New Jersey. Man alive. I didn’t even know that was a real place.

So I shouted back to him: “Thank you!”

And I meant it.

The young man just gave me a thumbs-up and a smile, then cranked up his rock music.

When the first traces of electrical power returned to Panama City, post Michael, after months of hard labor, the applause could be heard from three counties away.

Now I’m at a red light.

I pull alongside one of the electrical trucks. I roll down my window and honk my horn.

The driver rolls down his window. His diesel engine is rumbling too loud for him to hear what I’m shouting to him.

I just hope he can read my lips.

33 comments

  1. Christina - August 3, 2020 6:45 am

    Everyday heroes, real storm troopers! Thank you! (For us Californians, it’s the firefighters trying to contain wildfires in blazing heat now)

    Reply
  2. Cynthia Harmon - August 3, 2020 7:29 am

    When my oldest daughter started college, Katrina hit. She was near Jackson, MS. We live in Huntsville, AL. She was able to get a ride as far as Tuscaloosa. So I set out to pick her up. Traffic was backed up as soon as I got on 65S. As I wondered how long it would take me to get to her, I saw a long string of utility trucks and burst into tears. I was so grateful to see them on their way to help.

    Reply
  3. Christopher Spencer - August 3, 2020 9:42 am

    Sean and Jamie I have to say I love the new meaning your story has given to the term ” storm troopers” and it is very appropriate. May God bless and protect them all.
    Chris

    Reply
  4. Debbiie - August 3, 2020 11:33 am

    Thanks for always recognizing those who sacrifice so much for the rest of us.

    Reply
  5. jeff pendleton - August 3, 2020 11:33 am

    after Ivan we had a camp of linemen from, of all places, Canada living in a green patch near the interstate just south of Bagdad. i wish i had had something to take them but we were living off mre’s and potted meat ourselves. mom and dad had lost everything. i cant drive by that patch of clearing without thinking of those men who lived there for several weeks.

    Reply
  6. Bill Strawn - August 3, 2020 12:08 pm

    You are a good man, Sean Dietrich. Thank you for another wonderful thought. Just survived another scare here on the east coast of Florida and I will remember to thank any linemen I pass.

    Reply
  7. Dianne - August 3, 2020 12:09 pm

    Sean……..Yes, these line workers are “Stormtroopers” in the true sense of the word. Thank you so much for honoring and acknowledging them in your column today. They leave their homes, their families, their every day lives behind in order to turn on the power in cities and states that have lost their power due to storms. Thank you, Sean!!!

    Reply
  8. Emily - August 3, 2020 12:33 pm

    I have lived on the Atlantic or the Gulf coast most of my life which has been marked by hurricanes since Camille. I love these linemen who get us up and running again, while we are piling up limbs And debris on the street, they are hooking us back up. Even for the brief time I lived inland I was affected by hurricanes, specifically Katrina which blew up a mess in Jackson Mississippi. I naively thought I was going to be safe from storms until a huge tulip poplar in my backyard went down. When it fell, it sounded like dynamite had gone off! It missed hitting the roof of the room I was in, caught by an oak tree. It was a sight!

    Reply
  9. Phil (Brown Marlin) - August 3, 2020 1:21 pm

    Thanks, Sean. A nice lesson about good old down-home Americanism at work; and I do mean work, ’cause those guys get after it. Sure, they get a nice paycheck when it’s all done, but no glory, no headlines, just load up and head home. We complain about our power bill, but when a storm takes it down, there is no more welcome sight than that bucket truck coming down the street. May God bless and protect these courageous men and women and all those in the path of any storm.

    Reply
  10. Berryman Mary M - August 3, 2020 1:48 pm

    Thank you, Sean. May we be grateful everyday or ordinary heroes.

    Reply
  11. Jeriann Hix - August 3, 2020 1:51 pm

    Thank you for this in a time when public servants are not getting the recognition deserved. God be with each of them.

    Reply
  12. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - August 3, 2020 1:55 pm

    Yes. Thank you linemen/women, firefighters, EMT’s, doctors.nurses, medical workers, Red Cross and Salvation Army, National Guard, Coast Guard – just all the family of this country that sacrifice so much to help the people who need them every day.

    Reply
  13. Linda Pouncey - August 3, 2020 2:05 pm

    I love this great spirit of great Americans. Lord, give us more of it!

    Reply
  14. HT - August 3, 2020 2:26 pm

    We will survive this pandemic with people like this. A lump in my throat while reading-I’m from Alabama, living in NJ, hoping to get home again. Thank you ALL who are braving the storms of life helping others!

    Reply
  15. johnallenberry - August 3, 2020 2:35 pm

    Thank heaven for those rough necked men who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. They are the unsung heroes and you just wrote them a verse. God bless them. And God bless Sean of the South.

    Reply
  16. Patricia Gibson - August 3, 2020 2:39 pm

    I am a retired Entergy employee. God bless these linemen.

    Reply
  17. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - August 3, 2020 4:11 pm

    A very good friend has a company that dries out buildings & homes after floods. They do lots of work on the Gulf Coast. You can imagine how busy they were after Michael.
    No price gouging, just several months of 16 hour days, 7 day weeks.
    He done so well he bought a distressed house on Deer Point Lake in Panama City for cash. It will eventually be a vacation place for friends & family.
    I guess my point really… It take’s thousands of workers to get those hurricane damaged areas livable again. His company also removes & treats mold. After the floods & power loss for days or weeks mold completely takes over inner walls & attics. It can be life threatening if not handled correctly.
    Every hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast I don’t get to see my friend for a couple months.
    We’re all thankful to the linemen but should remember that it takes thousands of others to make these areas “home” again.
    God bless them all & keep them safe.

    Reply
  18. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - August 3, 2020 4:16 pm

    Also, hanging over the driveway of the house he bought there hangs a large sign.
    Esse Quam Videri. Latin for, “To be rather than to seem”. It’s also the state motto of North Carolina.

    Reply
  19. Linda Moon - August 3, 2020 5:11 pm

    Storm Troopers is a perfect moniker for your Post here, and I’m also loving the visual from George Lucas. Your “troopers”, Sean, remind me of the Nurses you’ve extolled so often. BTW, I’m looking at a picture of teenage me and friends on Panama City Beach, with no dates…..just us girlfriends…. the best kind. Read my words here: “Thank You”. Every day. And I mean it!

    Reply
  20. Mike from Canada - August 3, 2020 6:11 pm

    …and we will always help, if we can. Our American cousins are our best friends.
    God Bless America.

    Reply
  21. Kay Keel - August 3, 2020 6:43 pm

    So very thankful for Storm Troopers. Our once lovely Panama City sure took a hard hit from Michael and we are still so thankful for all the Storm Troopers who came to our rescue. Slowly but surely we’re coming back from the horror we lived through in the aftermath of Michael’s landfall in beautiful little Mexico Beach October 10th 2018…a day I will NEVER forget.

    Reply
  22. Mike Bone - August 3, 2020 6:54 pm

    God bless the utility workers.

    Reply
  23. Nancy M - August 3, 2020 11:35 pm

    It’s a sight that moves me, too, whenever I see them, wherever they’re going. My parents and my in-laws lived through Frederic. We’ve had ice storms and blizzards and tornados in Birmingham. Ivan’s eye went over our house in Daphne. Those power trucks are a welcome sight! And I’m always proud when Alabama Power answers the call in other places, for whatever disaster.

    Reply
  24. Melanie - August 4, 2020 12:26 pm

    We have so many awesome people in this country! 👏🏻👍🏻🇺🇸🖐🏻🥰

    Reply
  25. John Meany - August 5, 2020 7:01 pm

    Thanks for the kind words!

    I’ve been one of those guys for 34 years. Currently in Wilmington since Monday. One of my wife’s friends shared this with her.

    It’s just a way of life for all of us including our families. Most of us go to bed every night and feel good about what we were able to do for someone else.

    Like I said, just a way of life!

    Thanks again

    Reply
  26. Janie F. - August 6, 2020 8:24 am

    As a lifelong resident of central Florida I can state unequivocally that if a hurricane hits in the middle of summer you feel helpless & hopeless for days. But when you see an out of state utility truck coming up your street it’s the sweetest sight this side of heaven. That truck gifts you with the sweetest feeling that things are fixin to get back to normal. I have literally stood on our front porch with tears streaming down my face at the sight of one of those trucks. Just thinking about those wonderful men leaving their families to come help us always touches my heart. They are true heroes! May God bless the linemen of our grateful nation!

    Reply
  27. Kate Watson - August 6, 2020 4:02 pm

    You cannot imagine what is was like going through a Cat 5 hurricane and living in the aftermath of a catastrophe like that. We got word that linepersons from all over the country were headed our way and we were so thankful!! As they rolled down the debris ridden streets of Bay County like a parade, people were crying, cheering, children running around clapping and some of us still too shocked to know what was going on. We went 21 days without power at my house and were grateful because they got it back on so quickly! Our community owes a debt of gratitude to those that run into a hellish storm to help others. You are super heroes! Sean, we even had Brewton people down here helping!

    Reply
  28. Frances - August 7, 2020 10:47 pm

    Sean, they aren’t all men…
    Love,
    A 40 year utility woman employee

    Reply
  29. Brenda - August 13, 2020 12:44 pm

    I live in New Smyrna Beach, FL. We love the brave Stormtroppers and are so grateful when they caravan far distances to help others recover from disaster. Thank you for your article and reminding us how lucky, fortunate and blessed we are when we see those of courage and strength come to save our day.

    Reply
  30. David Money - August 16, 2020 8:16 pm

    We lived in Port St. Joe until 1958. I was ten when my parents divorced and we moved back to Henry Co., Al. Mother moved out to St. Joe Beach after the divorce. I spent summers with her and fell in love with almost every girl between Apalach & PC. Mother’s house was 20 steps across Hiway 98 – just 100 yards from the beach. She would sit for hours in a lawn chair with her toes in the sand. She later moved a little more west to Mexico Beach. Those beaches were her hiding place. She spent her last year in a Marianna nursing home. I’ll never forget 10-10-18 when her place of refuge was decimated by Michael. We lost Mother 27 days later. She never saw her beach again. I’m thankful she didn’t. My wife and I plan to go back in a few weeks…to walk that beach and soak in the memories.

    Reply
  31. Susan - September 7, 2020 10:47 pm

    We live in Panama City and those utility workers were like angels come to save us.

    Reply
  32. Carolyn Clark - September 11, 2020 12:26 am

    Thank you for your kudos for our awesome linemen. Worked 45 years in office for power company and got to know these great guys. They are a special breed.

    Reply
  33. Marie - September 12, 2020 3:45 pm

    I have a huge respect for linemen. Salt of the earth, work from sun up to sun down (and longer) just to get the job done. Hard hats off to these great men (and a few women).

    Reply

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