Columbus Water and Light linemen Trevor Robichaud and Zach Fenner left Columbus to help residents of Wisconsin Rapids after a devastating storm tore through their community.
Robichaud and Fenner spent about six days in Rapids, helping businesses and residents restore power after a storm producing 100-plus mile-per-hour straight-line winds toppled trees and left destruction in its wake.
Water and Light Co-Superintendent Joe Hammer contacted Fenner and Robichaud and asked if they would be interested in helping crews with clean-up and power restoration.
“Joe asked if we were willing to go and we were like, ‘Sure we’ll go,’” Robichaud said. “It was kind of short notice but that comes with the job.”
According to Fenner, Hammer called them at 2 p.m. and they were on the road to Rapids in less than an hour. Robichaud packed clothes for about three days and they ended up staying six. Fenner and Robichaud left July 20 and returned to Columbus July 26.
“We were up there by 5 (that evening) and started working right away,” Fenner said. “When we got there, it was pitch black, nothing was on. All the roads were shut down. We had to take back roads to get anywhere.”
Along with Columbus, local crews from Waupun and Waunakee also chipped in. Overall, Robichaud said more than 45 public works departments helped, including from as far away as Crystal Falls, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
During the first three days of recovery, crews worked to get power to hospitals, schools, senior centers and other vital organizations. Robichaud said organizations and businesses typically have three phased lines supplying electrical power, while homes tend to have one.
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“When it came to Tuesday we spent time getting the single-phased lines up, pulling off trees that were on houses,” Robichaud said.
He said the storm was very similar to a 2015 wind storm that ripped through Columbus. However, Rapids, and surrounding communities, make up a much larger service area. After days without power, some residents grew impatient, but Fenner said they showed gratitude when they noticed crews working in their back yards.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Fenner said. “It’s fun helping people.”
While there were no casualties, many homes suffered severe damage. Fenner recalls seeing large trees smashed through houses. In backyards, trees were ripped from the ground by the roots, exposing massive holes.
“That’s why it took so long and needed so much manpower because they have such a wide territory,” Robichaud said. “It was rough. But I had the experience from 2015 and so I had some experience with it. I wasn’t too shocked.”
“I think they only have eight linemen in Rapids,” Fenner said. “That would have been a lot to fix for eight guys.”
Fenner and Robichaud logged 16-hour days to help clean up and get power back online. In one case, a small branch draped over a line prevented power to an elderly woman’s house in the country. While days were long and grueling, both linemen said it was rewarding to help those in need. It also provided them with experience handling the aftermath of a large storm.
“You’re not just in one spot all the time, you’re moving around to different spots in those 16 hours,” Fenner said. “It’s a lot of troubleshooting to get things back up.”
Robichaud, a journeyman, has worked for Columbus Water and Light for five years, while Fenner, an apprentice, is finishing up his first year.
Follow Kevin Damask on Twitter @kdamask or contact him at 608-963-7323.