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Willmar Municipal Utilities linemen answer the call to assist Florida in restoring power after Hurricane Ian

Two Willmar Municipal Utilities linemen were among a group of Minnesota utilities workers who volunteered to help restore power after Hurricane Ian devastated Florida.

Three trucks surrounding a power pole near Bartow, FL while restoring power to the region after Hurricane Ian.
Two linemen from Willmar Municipal Utilities were part of a convoy of 40 Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association members who traveled to Florida after Hurricane Ian to help restore power in the state.
Contributed / Willmar Municipal Utilities
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WILLMAR — Two Willmar Municipal Utilities linemen answered the call to go to Florida and help restore power after Hurricane Ian devastated the state.

Willmar Municipal Utilities lineman Joe Johnson, from left, and Ryan Kobliska answered the call to go to Florida to help with power restoration efforts after Hurricane Ian.
Willmar Municipal Utilities linemen Joe Johnson, from left, and Ryan Kobliska answered the call to go to Florida to help with power restoration efforts after Hurricane Ian.
Jennifer Kotila / West Central Tribune

Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association put out the call Monday, Sept. 26, for member utilities to provide workers to assist in Florida. The association recruited a crew of 40, including association staff members and municipal utility workers from around the state, including Joe Johnson and Ryan Kobliska from Willmar Municipal Utilities, who volunteered their time and equipment to recovery efforts.

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The workers from 14 different municipal utilities in Minnesota gathered in Rochester before heading south to Kissimmee, Florida, in their work trucks Sept. 28. Plans changed when the hurricane changed direction slightly and the crews were instead sent farther south to Bartow, Florida, according to Johnson.

After a 30-hour drive, they arrived in Bartow early in the day Friday, Sept. 30, and went to work, working 15-hour days for five days straight to restore power, Johnson said.

“(It was) pretty straightforward work — a lot of trees taking down lines, a lot of poles snapped, a lot of poles that were leaning into other trees or just leaning from the wind,” Johnson added. “Stuff broken up in the air, hardware broke. It was all relatively standard practice fixing-wise, but it was, ‘we gotta get it up and running’ because a lot of people didn’t have power. I think the town had around 12,000 meters (of power lines).”

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A digger derrick truck near tangled powerlines with two men in buckets repairing the lines.
Willmar Municipal Utilities linemen Joe Johnson and Ryan Kobliska helped to restore power in the region of Bartow, Florida, following Hurricane Ian's landfall in late September.
Contributed / Willmar Municipal Utilities

The area in which they worked covered 117 square miles, Kobliska added.

Johnson and Kobliska worked on a crew with workers from municipal utilities in Brainerd, Marshall and Buffalo. The crew was led by a local utility worker who was “showing us the ropes,” Johnson commented.

“We were pretty much out in the country the whole time,” he added. “There were a lot of flooded, swampy, grassy areas. At one point in time, Ryan and I were actually in a boat splicing wires together. It was an experience; it was a lot of fun.”

When introducing the two men at Monday’s Municipal Utilities Commission meeting, Willmar Municipal Utilities General Manager John Harren explained that when disasters like Hurricane Ian take place, there are already agreements in place through a mutual aid network of public utilities. The call is always answered when one of those utilities requests aid or it is requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Broken power lines and poles that had to be repaired in order to restore power in the region of Bartow, FL following Hurricane Ian.
Power lines and poles had to be repaired in order to restore power in the region of Bartow, Florida, following Hurricane Ian.
Contributed / West Central Tribune

“We have agreements all in place that allow us to go,” Harren said, noting agreements cover how employees are paid, who is covering workers compensation and how that a claim is handled if someone gets hurt. “When a state makes a request, or if Minnesota would need to make a request of other states, the agreements are there. It’s just a matter of a phone call ... In this case, Florida reached out and wanted help.”

The cost that Willmar Municipal Utilities incurred when Johnson and Kobliska were gone is reimbursed through FEMA or the utility for which they were providing services, Harren added.

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Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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