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Storm chaser: Queens County man helps bring power to Florida

Gil Johnson travelled from his home in Queens County to Florida earlier this fall to help restore power after hurricane Irma sqept through the region.
Gil Johnson travelled from his home in Queens County to Florida earlier this fall to help restore power after hurricane Irma sqept through the region.

SOUTH BROOKLYN, NS - “I watch the weather as closely as anyone,” says Gil Johnson.

The South Brookfield man has plenty of reason to do so. Any impending storm could mean several weeks away from his home in Queens County and working on a job in an emergency situation, says the former employee for Nova Scotia Power.

Johnson started his career as a powerline technician with Nova Scotia Power, working his way into various levels of management. After retiring in 2000, he taught a utility line work program at the Nova Scotia Community College, helping to develop the curriculum. In 2006, Johnson began a consulting business for safety and training.

With so much experience under his tool belt, Johnson decided to use his skills to help others in need by going to help restore power in places impacted by severe storms.

In the winter, Johnson says, this could be anywhere on the eastern seaboard, from Rhode Island up to the local area when nor'easters rip through, causing snow and ice damage. During hurricane season, Johnson found himself stationed in North Carolina, the Bahamas, and most recently, Florida.

Hurricane Irma

Johnson joined thousands of other power line technicians in September as they worked 16-hour days to restore power to areas in Florida affected by hurricane Irma. To get there, Johnson and a crew drove down with their own trucks and gear to the affected areas. Because there was so much traffic going into the state with people returning home, the crews had to take a long chain of back roads, getting lost many times along the way, he says.

Once there, his crew was moved from St. Petersburg to Seabring and finally to Lake Placid. Because of the constant relocating, Johnson says they were continually changing accommodations. Sometimes, they stayed in a conference centre with 250 army cots set up in a room, or bunkhouses that may or may not have air conditioning with 12 other men.

“I gained a whole new appreciation for air conditioning,” said Johnson.

While working in the 34-degree heat with 90 per cent humidity, it was very hot, he says.

While Canadians usually have an alternate way to heat their homes when the power fails, Johnson says, there is no other way to cool a house without air conditioning, and that needs power.

Johnson says the devastation was widespread and evidence of the devastation was everywhere. Priority for turning the power back on was given to places like hospitals and airports.

“The appreciation and enjoyment people have for when their power is turned back on is why I do it,” he says.

When he did have time to eat out, Johnson said, people were so appreciative of the work they were doing the workers would often get standing ovations in the restaurants. This appreciation is what keeps Johnson returning to storm-stricken areas.

Working in the aftermath of Irma, Johnson says the focus was always on safety - whether this was maintaining proper hydration in the heat not working too many hours or avoiding the bugs. Larger animals were also a hazard, he adds.

 “You couldn’t just reach into the brush for a wire because there might be snakes in there,” said Johnson. “Others had to watch for gators while we worked.”

He says the safest spot was in the bucket of his truck.

Despite the creatures, he looked on the upside, joking that at least they weren’t wading in snow up to their armpits.


Looking ahead

Currently, the company that Johnson freelances for is in negotiations to send a crew to Puerto Rico. Reports say residents in some places may be yet another year without power. But, before that can happen, there are many details to work out, including immunizations and contracts for payment, he said.

Johnson said he can decide on a case-by-case whether he wants to go to the next worksite or not. He is also juggling this storm-chasing career with being a councillor for District 7 for the Region of Queens Municipality.

For now, Johnson loves going, especially to these impoverished areas to help return power. When he sees their humble living, and that they only have enough power to run three lamps, he says it makes him realize how much we take for granted.


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