ALLIANCE — Much of the fight to restore electricity to all of Eastern North Carolina - which is expected to take days still - shifted Monday from repairs of major equipment to the more painstaking task of mending the web of Hurricane Irene-snapped smaller distribution lines.
Progress Energy, the main energy provider in the east, said Monday night that it had slashed the number of its North Carolina customers without electricity from a peak of 280,000 Saturday to under 50,000 Tuesday morning.
Officials said all power will likely be restored by Thursday, returning the juice for lights, refrigeration and that vital air-conditioning. Smaller utilities have made similar progress undoing the damage wreaked by the hurricane.
After a storm like Irene chews up the power grid, much of the work to rebuild it is performed out of the public eye, in places such as the Pamlico County soybean field that was ground zero for Progress Energy's single biggest restoration project Monday.
Something, perhaps a tornado spawned by the storm, had flattened a massive pair of 85-foot poles that carried the main transmission line from New Bern to much of Pamlico, triggering a domino effect as the cables yanked down a half-mile of poles. The line fed a substation that distributed power across miles of farmland to homes in working-class communities - some too small to have names - and the yachting town of Oriental.
The soil was still so soggy Monday that the 85 utility workers swarming the site had to drive special tracked vehicles that could roll over the mud and even float. They deployed an even larger version to drag standard bucket trucks through the mud and position them beside each new pole.
Rufus Jackson, who oversees maintenance and repair work for Progress Energy across the Carolinas, was on hand to make sure things went smoothly, in part because it was the last of more than a dozen major transmission lines that had been damaged.
"When you get lines like this back up, you'll start seeing restorations in the thousands pretty quickly," Jackson said.
Progress and other utilities have brought in hundreds of additional workers to help, some from as far away as Arkansas and Florida. But they didn't send them out to drive around and look for downed lines. When there are widespread outages, power companies assess the damage, then develop a triage plan for repairs that will get the largest number of customers back on line the quickest, Jackson said.
That's why in the early days of such recovery efforts, the number of customers without power falls quickly. Later, crews working in thinly populated rural areas may spend the same amount of time repairing a line to just one house that they did earlier when returning power to hundreds.
"You have to get the big numbers restored, and then you work on down to the onesies and twosies," Jackson said.
The last 5 percent
Progress Energy had expected that by midnight Monday power would be restored to 85 percent of its customers who had lost it. By midnight tonight, electricity should be back to 96 percent.
Pamlico's low population density, though, makes it the kind of place where some in that last 5 percent or so will be roughing it.
That's nothing new, said Clarence Squires Jr., a retiree who lives in the tiny community of Whortonsville. It's tucked away on low ground in the eastern reaches of the county near the mouth of the Neuse River.
"We always seem to be the last ones they get to," Squires said, sitting in the shade of his carport as his wife, Nancy, periodically emerged from their house with another dripping rug or blanket.
A neck-high line on their home's brick veneer showed how deep it had flooded. The mattresses were soggy, the appliances dead. Plenty of cleaning to be done, Squires said, but no rush to start.
"There ain't much you can do when the current's off," he said. "I guess I could mop, but that's about it."
All across the power-free zone, thousands Monday were coping like Squires: sitting outside in the shade and using grills and plastic coolers as they waited for the utility crews to pull the remaining trees off power lines and put in new poles.
Some of the most extensive storm damage took place among the state's rural electric cooperatives and municipal power agencies, the small electricity providers that typically buy power from Progress Energy or other large utilities and distribute it to their own customers.
Over the weekend at many of these power providers, it was not uncommon for more than half the system to lose electricity during the storm. These local organizations scrambled to restore power with assistance from utility crews from North Carolina, as well as other Southeastern states.
The Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative, which provides power in three coastal counties, experienced a total power loss Friday, leaving all 38,162 customers without lights and air conditioning. Fewer than 1,000 customers were still without electricity by Monday evening.
Roanoke Electric Cooperative, with customers in seven counties, lost power to 95 percent of its 14,600 customers. About 70 percent of those were still without power late Monday as the agency dealt with 550 miles of downed power lines in its 2,200-mile system.
Greenville Utilities in Pitt County had 45,000 customers in the dark out of a total of 63,000. The municipal agency - which is relying on assistance from crews from Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and the Fayetteville Public Works Commission - will have to rebuild entire sections of its system to restore power to the few thousand customers still without electricity.
"This was the worst systemwide disaster that we have ever seen," Greenville Utilities spokeswoman Sue Hatch said. "Just trees down on power lines all over."
By comparison, the state's largest electric utility, Duke Energy, lost power to a mere 22,000 customers, primarily in Orange and Durham counties. Duke's service area is largely concentrated in the western part of North Carolina, which was spared high winds and flooding. About 1,650 workers from Duke Energy or Duke contractors are helping with storm restoration efforts along the East Coast.
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