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Working overtime: Area workers put in long hours following storm

Paul Cronemiller, who retired more than two months ago, returned to work this week as a linesman with Beltrami Electric Cooperative to help restore power to the area. Bethany Wesley | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Working through the Fourth of July holiday, crews from Otter Tail Power hook up two businesses without power on Thursday afternoon. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI - Three years ago, Wayne Petersen retired after 44 years as a linesman, having spent 34 years with Beltrami Electric Cooperative.

This week, though, he was back on the job, called in to help restore power to the area following Monday's powerful storm.

"I kind of expected it," he said Thursday, while working south of Bemidji.

Petersen received a call Tuesday morning, as did Paul Cronemiller, who retired as a Beltrami Electric Cooperative linesman two and a half months ago after 33 years on the job.

"They called me and asked if I was interested in helping out," said Cronemiller, who was working Thursday afternoon on the campus of Oak Hills Bible College.

It was just coincidence that Cronemiller was still available. For the past few years he's been spending the Fourth of July at Norway Beach near Cass Lake, but this year those plans didn't materialize. That, too, was fortunate since Norway Beach was heavily damaged in Monday's storm.

He said returning to work this week wasn't hard. In some ways, it was even enjoyable.

"These storms are always fun. You kind of have to improvise a bit," he said, motioning to his truck, which may have been stuck in some mud. "It's not the everyday routine. We were really clobbered by the storm."

The two retirees are among hundreds of workers this week who have put in long days to restore power and services to Bemidji area residents in the wake of two storms. The first hit Bemidji Monday evening, bringing with it straight-line winds in excess of 80 mph. A second storm hit the area Wednesday.

Calling them "unsung heroes," the city of Bemidji in a press release praised the work of employees with Beltrami Electric, Otter Tail Power Co., Paul Bunyan Communications and Midcontinent Communications.

Rob St. Clair, network operations manager with Paul Bunyan Communications, said that company has had between 15 and 20 employees out working 12-hour-plus days since the first storm. Technicians can respond to as many as 10 to 15 calls a day.

He figured about 400 trouble calls were still awaiting service Thursday afternoon.

"It's going to be a few days before we can get to everybody," he said. "Hopefully, customers can be patient."

Employees from all departments, he said, have been working all week.

Cole Mack, the fulfillment center manager with Midcontinent, said crews there have been working as quickly as electric companies have been able to restore power to residents.

"We're kind of at their mercy," he said of power companies.

Midcontinent crews were working until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday and all day Tuesday and Wednesday, Independence Day.

"After the first eight hours pass, (crews) realize that it's a severe incident and buckle down and just keep going," he said.

This week's storms were a rarity in that the impact and outages were widely spread for significant periods of time, Mack noted.

"We don't usually get affected real bad; it's just usually a half a night or a few hours," he said. "Never, ever 24-hour periods."

Despite the long hours, Mack said crews have been working in good spirits.

"Everybody's been real optimistic," he said. "Everybody's been really positive and working hard. We're proud of the guys."

Otter Tail did not return a phone call seeking comment. The company had about 4,400 reported outages Monday, and fewer than 200 customers in Bemidji and Cass Lake were without power as of early Wednesday evening.

By Thursday afternoon, Beltrami Electric had had fewer than 1,300 customers without power. About 700 were from Monday night's storm, while 500-600 were from Wednesday's storm, according to Mitch Raile, Beltrami Electric's spokesman.

"We really got hit with a double-decker," Raile said of the back-to-back storms this week.

The progress, he said, was impressive in that more than 4,200 were initially without power and that number has been slashed to 1,300.

"A lot of people have been going above and beyond their tasks to help out," he said, noting that employees in all departments have been brining crews food and water and manning the phones.

Crews have been working constantly since Monday, Raile said, having started at 7 p.m. Monday and working straight through until 9 p.m. Tuesday.

They worked another 12 hours Wednesday and were on pace for another 12-hour day Thursday.

"It's quite amazing to see these guys work," he said.

Beltrami Electric has had about 60 employees working constantly. They also have been aided by neighboring cooperatives, such as Roseau Electric Cooperative and Wild Rice Electric Cooperative in Mahnomen, who have sent additional manpower.

Four Wild Rice Electric employees were assisting in the area Thursday and Friday. All four said it was common practice for cooperatives to send help when it is available.

Cronemiller praised their work, saying that the crews may not know one another, but are able to collaborate quickly to get the job done.

"The hardest thing is just not knowing where everything is fed from," said Nathan Zortman, who has been with Wild Rice Electric for five years.