DENMARK — When a team of utility workers from North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains got a call to help restore power to thousands of shivering folks in Maine, they figured they knew what to bring along.
The crew had a mobile command post loaded with computers, fax machines, radios, and even a microwave oven, stove and refrigerator. They also had a fleet of huge trucks, including a 26,000-pound tool shop-on-wheels equipped with a crane.
But the 50 or so experienced line workers, many of them veterans of past campaigns like Hurricane Andrew, forgot one key piece of gear: grits.
Yankee eateries — at least those that managed to stay open after this month’s ice storm — have yet to catch on to the Southern staple, a porridge made from ground hominy.
It wasn’t long after a wave of Air Force jets dropped off Tom Smitherman and his handpicked team that their head office in Franklin, N.C., had a box of instant grits in the mail.
“As long as we have a guitar and our grits, we’re happy,” said Smitherman, vice president of production at Nantahala Power and Light Co., a subsidiary of Duke Energy Corp.
Since their arrival nearly two weeks ago, these self-described “outback boys” have gotten an up-close and personal look at a part of the country that hits them with arctic blasts one minute and warm smiles of gratitude the next.
The Southern drawls have not escaped the storm-weary residents of Denmark, a town of about 850 people in rural southwestern Maine. And the gregarious Smitherman raises eyebrows at the local convenience store when he pours a bag of salted peanuts into his bottle of pop, apparently another North Carolina custom.
Some Maine traditions strike the men from Dixie as a bit odd, also. Doug Battles took one look at an ice fisherman’s shack on a frozen lake and shook his head.
“We’ve got outhouses in North Carolina, too, but you won’t see us putting them out in the middle of a lake,” he said jokingly.
However, all cultural differences are put aside when it comes to restoring power in the dead of winter. The Jan. 8 storm that cut off electricity to more than 500,000 people in Maine overwhelmed the state’s utilities, forcing them to ask for outside help. Nantahala responded, as did more than a dozen other utilities from as far away as Florida.
Central Maine Power Co., the state’s largest electric utility, says 560 out-of-state line crews were lending a hand at one point. In return, CMP agreed to pay their wages, lodging, food and other expenses.
With the effort winding down as only about 1,500 customers remained off line Friday, CMP put its costs for restoring power at about $55 million.
But Smitherman, who has covered storms for more than 30 years, said money was not the reason his team came to Maine.
“Sure, everybody likes to get paid, but that’s not what drives them,” he said inside a roomy trailer that served as the command post in nearby Bridgton. “The number one motivator is the desire to help people who are in bad shape.”
The line workers have pulled 17-hour shifts in bone-chilling temperatures and eaten their lunches while sitting crowded together in the heated cabs of their trucks. The work is dangerous, grueling and stressful.
Maine outdoor clothing manufacturer L.L. Bean donated special trousers, coats and long underwear to help the men endure the cold, while thankful residents have cooked them meals and even taken them into their homes for the night.
A schoolteacher even put up a sign in his yard that proclaimed, “Thank God for North Carolina.”
“We didn’t care who they were or where they came from, but they’ve done a great job for us,” said Denmark Fire Chief Kenneth Richardson, who was without power for 11 days. “I think when disaster hits, we all come together.”
The North Carolina workers said Maine’s rugged mountains, rural landscape and deep forests reminded them a lot of Franklin, their hometown in southwestern North Carolina and a flooring manufacturing center of about 2,800 residents. But there were some notable differences, also.
“I just got one thing I don’t like about Maine,” said Battles as he rested, bundled up in several layers of clothing, beside a utility truck. “It takes a long time for the snow to melt. When it snows at home, at least it melts.”
Like the rest of the close-knit Nantahala outfit, construction superintendent Dick Wittekind said he thought Maine was beautiful, if a little too chilly in the wintertime.
“It’s cold like this at home,” Wittekind said. “It just doesn’t stay cold as long.”
Smiling underneath his red beard, Wittekind shared another observation: “The only thing I’d miss up here is golf. Back home, you can play golf in the winter.”
All said they were impressed at the warmth and kindness shown by the Mainers they’ve met. Returning the favor, Smitherman organized a “hoedown” at a school in Bridgton where utility workers got hot meals.
As Battles strummed a guitar despite his fingers being badly cracked by the cold, the rest of the North Carolina delegation joined in with a stringed tub, banjos and jew’s harps while wailing out a hymn he wrote to commemorate their stay titled, “Ballad of the Ice.”
“We’re going to tear down the Mason-Dixon Line before this is all over,” roared Smitherman. “It’s going to be like the Berlin Wall coming down!”
`Ballad of the Ice’
Here is the text of the “Ballad of the Ice,” written by Doug Battles, a Nantahala Power and Light Co. lineman:
Get up and get packed, got to get on a plane,
Going to fly up north to the great state of Maine.
We hit the ground running looking for a place to start,
So they sent us to a place called — Denmark.
We’re the Duke Boys, that’s our name,
Building power lines, that’s our game.
We can do a lot of work from daylight till dark,
When disaster strikes just give us a bark!
Well we found the people here are really nice,
But they seem to have a problem with too much ice.
Took one look around and the first thing we found,
All the power lines were laying on the ground.
Well we hit a lick here and we hit a lick there,
Now we have all the power lines back in the air.
Working up here is like being at home
So if you all need us again just pick up the phone.