By the time his 18-ton Ford bucket truck hissed to a noisy halt Thursday in the staging area behind Koury Convention Center, Steve Ezernack had been driving for two days and 1,350 miles. All to stand in the blowing rain, waiting for Isabel to do her damage.
Like a tank army massing before a battle, an estimated 1,500 power crews from Texas to Alabama to Ezernack's home base of Louisiana converged in an eastward advance along I-40 toward familiar adversaries - wind, water and the big one, darkness.
Power companies call them "emergency response teams." But to the linemen themselves, they're "storm chasers" - a hastily mustered corps in blue jeans and hard hats.
Chasing one catastrophe to the next - and the overtime that comes with working for days at a stretch - they watch The Weather Channel the way some people watch the Dow. They keep a perennial bag packed, a supply of instant coffee and cans of Beanie Weenies - to be warmed on their truck engines, if all else fails.
"Hurricanes, ice storms, floods, you name it," said Ezernack, who had kissed his wife and three children goodbye in Shreveport 48 hours before, and had been driving ever since.
"Everybody understands when they get the call," said fellow crew member Michael Hughes, who got on the truck at 4 a.m. Wednesday in Mobile, Ala. "Natural disasters might be on their own back porch next month."
And you have to admit: As stationary Internet "Web cams" from places like Wrightsville Beach and Oak Island tumbled out of commission Thursday, and TV reporters at the coast clung to lamp posts like rag dolls during their live stand-ups, what could be more reassuring than the scene at the Four Seasons parking lot? Row after row of hulking power trucks were parked at the ready, steel booms holding "cherry-picker" buckets aloft.
Because every truck carries $10,000 worth of tools, Hughes explained, the linemen keep their tools in the raised buckets to foil sneak-thieves.
"And besides," added Ezernack, surveying the impressive fleet, "it looks really cool."
Veterans of a war with the elements that has no end, they wear hats that say things like, "HURRICANE LILLI." They swap stories from past campaigns, and spy the faces and colors of familiar outfits - Pike Electric in the yellow trucks, Red Simpson's red and white.
Arriving here from Little Rock, Ark., Cody Smith recalled once driving across Texas into 90-mph El Nino head winds, when Ezernack held the accelerator to the floor in the 18-ton Ford, but could get the truck to go no faster than 35.
Nor has North Carolina been a particular vacation spot. Hughes remembered getting to a town down east as Hurricane Floyd surged in - "It was some little place that started with a 'G' " - and leaving just as the water was up to the truck's fuel tank.
But the real bane of the storm chaser remains the ice storm - bringing air brakes that lock into perilous slides, and freezing rains that chill to the bone, no matter how many layers of long johns, Carhartts and rain slickers the linemen wear.
"It starts filling up the bucket," said Smith, shivering at the memory of last December, "and you might as well be standing in a bucket of ice water."
But as lineman waited for orders to take them to Myrtle Beach, Cape Fear or north to Virginia, they wondered whether the heavy bucket trucks would just get stuck: The ground is so saturated from a season of rains that they might instead need light, all-terrain vehicles they call "swamp buggies," always in short supply.
"So what do you do then?" mused Ezernack. "You get out your hoists and your grips. And you start walking and start climbing."
From the general public, sitting in dark but dry homes, the most amusing comment the linemen hear is the frequent, "Hey! My cable TV is out!" Just as frequent, Ezernack concedes, is the customer who runs out to thank a crew for restoring the power.
By then, they're on to the next line, before anyone can offer dry clothes, a hot meal or a real cup of coffee.
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