February 2023

Heroes of the Storm

While you and your family were sheltering from torrential rains, Manuel Rodriguez, 50, and his brother Joel, 58, were digging underground conduits to help restore power to Aptos.

Not only was the work torturous in horrid conditions, but the two were far from their homes in San Luis Obispo County working six days a week, staying in a mobile home in Watsonville and driving back south for one day to see their wives and children.

And, to make matters worse, the retaining wall around Joel’s house in Atascadero had collapsed and friends there were helping him out with sand bags. He figures there was at least $15,000 to $20,000 of damage.

“The best part of the job is that you are helping people,” said Manuel, who was with a team completing the conduit on a Saturday after the storm had cleared. “And you are in a different place every day. You’re not stuck in one place every day. You travel all the time and you do something different every day.”

They work for MGE Underground, of Watsonville, which subcontracts for PG&E, part of the thousands of heroic workers who showed up in Santa Cruz to help with the devastation.

There was a PG&E crew that worked 10 hours New Year’s Eve on top of poles in biting rain on Clubhouse Drive in Aptos after a Eucalyptus tree knocked out power for 4,500 people and destroyed a pickup—a photo of which was picked up by the New York Times and illustrated the storm around the world.

“I was so impressed they were out and they didn’t stop until the power was back and it was pouring, really pouring,” said Santa Cruz County’s Probation Chief Fernando Giraldo, who watched the work from his window.

“I thought we would be out of power for days. I sleep with a CPAP machine, so it was very concerning to me. I was shocked they came and did it so quickly working on top of those poles for hours. The endurance! That’s a young man’s job. They were great.”

In Lompico, Comcast went the extra mile to restore internet access. Most of them already had power because they had generators, but the internet was gone because the company requires commercial power to operate over a large area—and many Comcast employees have homes there and had already suffered in the CZU fires.

The employees solved the problem for their neighbors by creating a temporary network by running fiber over the canopy provided by tree tops—keeping those who were already cut off by flooded roads and no electricity able to work and study from home, and stay up on the most important news. Some of the homes still don’t have power, but they have internet, while they await a more permanent solution.

“This will be my 29th year with Comcast and 25 in the Network department, so working during storms is nothing new to us here,” said Engineering and Network supervisor Ron Poole, who worked from December 27 to January 20 with no break. “At first, the thought was that we are actually going to get some much-needed rain. The first storm hit and we had expected damage to our plant, then the storm fronts just kept coming. Aside from the CZU Fire in 2020, this has been the biggest event we have had that impacted our outside plant structure.”

The crews feared mudslides and falling trees, which were happening all around them, but there was a silver lining.

“It felt great to see all of the modems come online, and service restored. People were thanking us the whole time. We truly felt bad for them and knew that commercial power wasn’t going to be restored for 10-14 more days.”

Verizon also stepped up, to the relief of the Zayante Fire Protection District.

“Verizon has arrived!” they posted on Facebook. “They have brought with them this portable cell tower which will help support communications in Lompico Canyon and Lower East Zayante. You might start seeing better signal on your cell phones so give them a try.

“Should be set up and running in two hours. Thank you to Verizon and the County of Santa Cruz for making this happen in our community! Note: these are limited range units and we have a lot of trees. But we figure it’s worth a try and anything is better than what’s available now.”

You could barely see Capitola’s beachfront, one of the busiest tourist attractions in the county, after the rains flushed down thousands of trees. Organized by Save Our Shores, dozens of residents donned gloves and filled a giant dumpster with driftwood, barely scratching the surface of the work still needed to be done.

“We had close to 100 people show up to clean up Capitola Beach,” said city councilwoman Yvette Brooks, who was out there working. “For two hours volunteers picked up debris and created a human conveyor belt to haul larger logs into a green waste dumpster.

“I am so proud of Capitola, its residents, community volunteers and staff. Although our city was hit hard with damage to infrastructure that will cost us millions of dollars, our village is strong and it’s moments like this when I know Capitola shines bright with resiliency.”

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