BGE rolls out the welcome mat for visiting crews

In the warmth of a great white tent pitched on an M&T Bank Stadium parking lot and in the cabs of utility trucks, more than 100 men from Massachusetts waited for a mission.

For some, Thursday was their 10th day on the road after a weeklong stint in the Philadelphia area, where a storm caked power lines with ice, and lights went out for hundreds of thousands. With work winding down there, the men of Alliance Power were called to Maryland, arriving Wednesday ahead of the snow.

"We just go around until everybody's cleaned up," said Dan Cronin, a foreman from Cape Cod, decked out in bushy gray mutton chops and fluorescent green sweatshirt. It's a popular color in the stadium lot and at staging areas set up by BGE to serve as rallying points, dining halls, coffee and snack bars.

BGE set up a small staging area at TownMall in Westminster, but its bigger operations went up at the stadium and near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The utility called in caterers from Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties to erect white tents to accommodate hundreds at M&T and BWI, setting up field kitchens serving breakfast and supper, preparing box lunches to go, and keeping the coffee warm.

"Gotta' feed 'em good," said Keith Thomas, a general manager with Two Rivers Steak & Fish House in Pasadena, one of several restaurants whose owners catered the BWI site. "They're out there working hard."

Thomas stood at one end of the tent at BWI late Wednesday, where a black curtain separated the dining hall — 48 tables with white paper tablecloths — from the kitchen. Behind the drapes some 10 kitchen crew members scurried about, having already set out a spread of pork tenderloin, barbecue chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, hot rolls and butter. The crew was getting coffee going, and lighting butane flames under soup pots for gravy and barbecue sauce.

Over the weekend, the caterers took down the same tent at the same spot as cleanup work wrapped up from last week's ice storm, only to be called back Tuesday to do it all over again.

Working overnight, they raised the tent — some 30 feet high at eight peaks — and had dinner ready to welcome the first crew members Wednesday from nine states as far away as Oklahoma, Alabama and Missouri.

"It's good, got no complaints at all," said Kyle Ford, wolfing down chicken, pork and potatoes. A truck mechanic, Ford was part of a crew of nearly 70 with Thirau Electric of Rocky Hill, Conn., which also came down from Philadelphia, continuing an extended road trip.

With forecasts looking dire, BGE officials began discussions Tuesday through what's known as the mutual assistance system, allowing power companies across the country to share resources in emergencies, said Jerry Schmidt, BGE's manager of material and logistics.

For Thursday, BGE envisioned something nearly on the scale of the freezing rain that hit a week ago, knocking out power to about 180,000 customers, and so officials asked for 500 utility crew members to supplement its force of 1,100 road crew members.

When such plans are made, BGE also kicks into gear to provide support for the visiting crews — not only food, but hotel rooms at BWI and in Baltimore. Rachael Lighty, a utility spokeswoman, said there's a network that's mobilized to support the visiting crews, though she had no estimates for what this week's snow or last week's ice will cost in terms of food and accommodations.

Todd Billingsley and a contingent from JBL Electric in South Plainfield, N.J., had just made it home from Philadelphia only to be told to turn right around and head for Maryland.

"This is day eight for us," said Billingsley, a lineman who rolled down in a bucket truck as part of a crew of 50 from JBL.

He polished off the chicken and pork and found it just fine — under the circumstances.

"When you're on storm work, you're not going to eat surf and turf," he said.

The overnight snow dumped a foot and more in the Baltimore area, but it was lighter than expected and did far less damage to power lines than BGE feared, Lighty said. No more than 200 customers were out of power at any one time, with about 1,400 restored during the course of the day.

Most of the out-of-state crews, Lighty said, were not needed after all.

Cronin and his men, served a supper of lasagna, catfish, roasted vegetables and potatoes and salad by The Classic Catering People, expected to be released to head elsewhere by nightfall, unless a late band of snow and rain caused new problems. If that was the case, they'd be prepared, and well fed.

"If you don't have the help, you're screwed," Cronin said.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com