Fred Harris’ job as a journeyman lineman for 4-County Electric Power Association is pretty simple, to hear him tell it.
“Basically, it’s just maintaining lines, setting poles, keeping the lights on,” he said.
He might get five or so “trouble calls” a day — anything from a fallen limb knocking down a powerline to a squirrel or bird getting too friendly with a transformer.
But none of the week of Valentine’s Day was “normal” for Harris and his colleagues at the rural utility.
Two winter storms hit the Golden Triangle — the first on Feb. 14 and the second three days later — both bringing a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain that tore through 4-County’s infrastructure and left thousands of its members without power.
“Trees cannot take that ice,” said Harris, who has worked for 4-County for 18 years. “It gets on those big limbs, and they come down and take a powerline with them. … We hadn’t had an ice storm like that in a long time.”
Each storm sent crews along icy roads in sub-20-degree temperatures to work 12- and 14-hour shifts restoring power. Harris, who lives in Columbus and works primarily in Lowndes County, said his crew found a rhythm and repaired the damage as quickly as possible.
“When you’re out there, your adrenaline gets going and you just work as a team,” he said. “When we get to a spot, the first thing is making sure the line is de-energized so we can safely work on it. Then somebody will grab a chainsaw to start cutting up the (downed) tree or limb, another man might start carrying wire, another prepares to climb the pole and somebody else gets ready to go up with the wire.”
The storm that started Wednesday night and went into Thursday morning, which Harris said was the worse of the two on 4-County, came less than two days after the utility had restored power to all of its members from the first one. Some areas had multiple outages throughout the rest of the week.
“We got a lot of people’s power back on Thursday, but then there were several spots we’d have to respond to again because another tree, or another limb from the same tree, fell on a powerline,” Harris said.
Harris is a Columbus High School graduate and studied to be an electrical technician at East Mississippi Community College. He said he always knew he wanted to have an electrical career, and after stints in construction and Baldor Electric, he finally got his “dream job” at 4-County in 2003.
He’s been a steady hand, according to 4-County CEO Brian Clark.
“Fred is a great man,” Clark said. “He works hard, he’s always got a smile on his face, and he’s just the type of guy you’re genuinely happy to be around.
“His job is not an average job,” he added. “You have to be an above-average person to be in this line of work. These employees have to go out into the worst conditions and climb poles, and they’re on-call all the time. … But when a storm like (two weeks ago) hits, that’s their finest hour. The gears were oiled and the engine was ready to go.”
Harris said his wife Veronica and their four children have gotten used to the occasionally long and odd hours he works. His eldest two children are grown, and he has twin 14-year-old daughters still at home. They all still will text him to check up on him when he’s out on a major job.
“When they were younger, it was hard on them,” Harris said. “If they knew a storm was coming, they’d kind of cling to me because they knew I might have to go out.”
No matter how bad the storms locally have been, nothing compares to the worst damage Harris has seen.
“Katrina,” he said.
Harris was among the 4-County workers who went down to the Gulf Coast for 10 days in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina had left its trail of destruction.
“Debris and powerlines were on the ground as far as the eye could see,” he recalled. “That was one of those moments you were working and felt like, “Man we ain’t getting anywhere.’ The ones who went down there can always look at the damage we get here and say, ‘We’ve seen worse.'”