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Alabama Power workers restored power in Selma amid own troubles

With severe storms brewing across Alabama Jan. 12, Alabama Power Distribution Specialist Reid Buster was listening to weather reports on the radio as he drove back to Selma after attending a morning safety meeting in Montgomery. About that time, the forecaster said a tornado was tracking toward Selma Country Club, in the heart of Buster’s neighborhood.

“I live across the street from the country club,” said Reid, adding that his wife, Grace, and their little rat terrier were at home. “I called my wife and said, ‘You need to take shelter now.’”

Meanwhile, Buster was forced to pull to the side of the road, where he anxiously watched as the tornado churned above him on its way to his hometown.

Reaching Selma, Buster said the first order of business was to check on his family. After making sure his two children were safe at their day care, Buster headed home.

“I could see my house, but I couldn’t get to it because there were trees everywhere,” he said. “I parked on the No. 10 fairway of the golf course and walked to my house, and found my wife sitting there in shock.”

Reid Buster shows a picture of his house on his phone. (Phil Free/Powergrams)

The damage was extensive. Along with a broken window, the force of the storm ripped the electrical boxes from the walls.

A huge red oak tree fell across the Busters’ driveway, crushing his truck, car and golf cart. Another fallen tree destroyed his newly constructed “man cave” in the backyard.

With no power, Buster and his wife packed and headed for his mom’s house, where they remained for the next few days.

“Once I got my family squared away, I went back to work that night and got my marching orders,” said Buster, who worked as a lineman during his first 11 years with the company.

For the next five days, Buster worked 16-hour shifts in east Selma, where much of the electric grid had been destroyed. The twister had damaged or wiped out hundreds of homes and businesses. In many cases, there was only a pile of wood or bricks where a house had stood, and not a tree in sight, he said.

Buster worked with other distribution specialists and contractors to set up stakes marking the locations for new poles, re-routed power from transformers to homes that could take electricity, and determined where new wire needed to be strung.

Repairing his own home had to wait until power could be restored.

“I knew my family was safe, and I knew I had a duty to perform my job for Alabama Power,” he said. “The first step is always to restore power. It’s a sense of pride to get the community up and running.”

Like Buster, Kelsey Tripp and Scott Mitchell were personally impacted by the tornado. And yet, they were on the job hours after the storm, helping restore service.

Tripp, lead lineman at the Selma Crew Headquarters, said after the tornado moved through the area, he called home to check on his mom. That’s when she told him that she was safe, but she had heard “windows breaking in the house.”

Leaving work, Tripp arrived to find trees blocking his street. After walking to his house, he saw that huge limbs from his neighbors’ trees had broken two windows. Tripp later realized that trees had knocked holes in the roof, and the leaks from the rain damaged the sheetrock and caused portions of the ceiling to collapse.

“I was thanking God that I had only a small amount of damage,” Tripp said. “The houses on the next street were ripped apart, and the church on the street behind me was demolished.”

Alabama Power’s Kelsey Tripp’s home was damaged during the Selma tornado in January and he worked around the clock to restore power to the community. (Phil Free/Powergrams)

After asking his father-in-law to help nail boards over the windows, Tripp returned to work, where he immediately joined restoration efforts. For a week, he worked from dawn to bedtime, helping to set more than 350 poles and replace or splice “countless” spans of wire.

“We were constantly moving,” said Tripp. “The biggest challenge was that the traffic was so congested because people were trying to see the damage and see what we were doing instead of letting us do our job.”

Tripp said it made him proud to see his community pull together in response to the devastation.

“I felt sorry for the people who had so much damage and, being the person that I am, I wanted to help get the power back on,” he said. “It made me feel good to know that the community was working to get some normalcy back in the lives of these people. Everybody was helping everybody.”

After the tornado blew through town, Mitchell, who had driven home for his lunch break, received a call that his dad was trapped in his house. When he arrived, Mitchell saw that a tree, which was about 20 inches in diameter and 50 feet tall, had fallen onto the roof, and its limbs were blocking the front and side doors of the house. The tree had also trapped his dad’s dog in the laundry room.

“My dad was in a panic because he couldn’t get outside to see what other damage had been done,” said Mitchell, local operations lineman at the Selma Crew Headquarters. “I was able to use the chainsaw and pole saw on my Alabama Power truck to cut the limbs so my dad and his dog could get out of the house.”

When he knew his dad was safe, Mitchell went to work to help with overall restoration. He helped evaluate and isolate trouble cases on feeders serving downtown Selma, making it possible to get power to large numbers of customers more quickly.

Mitchell said his dad’s house, which was in the direct path of the tornado, is a total loss. When the tree fell on the house, it caused the walls to shift and damaged the foundation beyond repair.

“I’ve worked at Alabama Power for more than 32 years and helped restore power after a lot of hurricanes and tornadoes, but it has never affected me personally until now,” said Mitchell. “This literally hit home. When a family member needs help, you want to do what you can. But we have to do our job. It meant the world to me that I had cousins and friends who were looking after him when I couldn’t be there.”

Alabama Power’s Scott Mitchell had to check on his dad, whose house was a total loss, after a tornado ripped through Selma in January. (Phil Free/Powergrams)

Selma Engineering Supervisor Kyle Clary said the commitment of these three men is typical of the dedication demonstrated by employees across Alabama Power.

“It gives me a great sense of pride and honor to work alongside people like Reid Buster, Kelsey Tripp, Scott Mitchell and so many others with similar stories,” Clary said. “They experienced significant damages to their houses and property from the tornado but still had a strong passion and commitment to help serve their community by getting the lights back on, which provides a sense of hope to those whose lives were affected by the tornado.”

Alabama Power employees are known for going the extra mile, whether that means working long hours following severe storms or responding to a trouble call at 2 a.m.

In recognition of that hard work and dedication, the company celebrated National Lineman Appreciation Day Tuesday. The annual holiday, established by Congress in 2013, honors the contributions of men and women across the country who work to ensure reliable service, maintain the energy infrastructure and protect public safety. These intrepid line workers are on call around the clock, and often work in dangerous conditions – sometimes away from home and families for days or weeks.

“I’m very proud of the dedication of our team,” said Scott Moore, Alabama Power senior vice president of Power Delivery. “They are steadfast in their commitment to putting our customers first and work tirelessly to restore power to affected communities as quickly and safely as possible.”

This story originally appeared in Powergrams, the magazine for Alabama Power employees and retirees. 

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