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AEP team must inspect lines from ground instead of by air

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Craig Walters and his crew know they have work to do. They just don't know where.

A blizzard brought on by Hurricane Sandy dumped inches of wet, heavy snow on West Virginia Tuesday, knocking out electricity to more than 100,000 Appalachian Power customers. And although linemen often use helicopters to scout downed lines, lingering rain clouds and high winds prevented them from taking off.

Appalachian Power got one helicopter in the air Wednesday, but lingering storm conditions prevented it from traveling very far.

That's making life difficult for Walters' Pikeville, Ky.-based team.

On Wednesday, Walters, a transmission line supervisor with American Electric Power, was tasked with checking a transmission line off Cove Road in Cabin Creek. He was supposed to be on vacation this week but was dispatched to West Virginia on Wednesday, arriving in Cabin Creek around 1 p.m.

His five-man crew already had inspected a short section of the line by the time he arrived. It was an easily accessible stretch running from a power pole at the bottom of the mountain to a substation. There were not any problems there, however, so the issue had to be somewhere back in the woods.

With no helicopter, they would have to check each tower on the transmission line by foot or on all-terrain vehicles.

Transmission lines are the high-voltage lines that run through the mountains, sometimes on wooden poles and sometimes on giant steel structures, feeding power to substations.

Fixing downed transmission lines is one of the first steps to restoring electricity after an outage. The lines connected to your house are powered by a substation, which is powered by a transmission line.

Until crews get those transmission lines back in working order, no one's lights will come on.

In a helicopter, linemen can quickly fly over and assess damage. If they spot a problem, the helicopter crew reports it to AEP's transmission center. Crews on the ground then look up that structure's identification number in a computer system, which will tell them exactly where it is located and what they will need to fix it.

On foot, crews can work for hours to reach a tower, only to find there's nothing wrong with it. It's important they visit each and every structure along the line, however.

"The one you miss is the one that it will be on. So, basically, you don't want to miss any of them," Walters said.

The whirlybirds certainly made workers' lives easier after a derecho knocked out power to a half-million AEP customers earlier this year. High winds broke some power poles like toothpicks, but the treacherous weather moved out of the area as quickly as it arrived. Workers still were able to take to the sky and identify downed lines quickly.

"You knew exactly where you were going. You knew exactly what you had," Walters said.  "Usually the storm rolls through and the weather clears up."

That didn't happen this time, so Walters' crew unloaded their four-wheelers on a snow-covered lot beside a small church and prepared to head up the mountain. It was after 2 p.m. when they set off. Linemen cannot work long after dark, and sunset was only a few hours away.

"If we had a helicopter, we would have done found it," crewmember Donnie Bartley said.

Unfortunately, the work is only half-finished once the men find the problem pole. Walters and his men also have to fix the downed line.

If the damage is extensive enough, they might use excavators and bulldozers to cut roads on the mountain so they can get bucket trucks and heavy machinery to the site. Sometimes, they truck in supplies on their ATVs. Other times, they just hike in with all their gear on their backs.

AEP hired contractors to help its workers after the snowstorm. That gave Walters 18 extra sets of hands on Wednesday. He was happy about that, because it will allow him to get the transmission line up and running in a shorter amount of time.

But until his main crew found the problem, the contractors had little to do but sit in their trucks and eat complimentary Chick-fil-a sandwiches.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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