As Gulf Power and other utility companies across the country prepare to celebrate National Lineworker Appreciation Day Wednesday, April 18, we take time out to recognize the families who love and support our linemen as they keep the power flowing every day.
Mike Wilkes had just one promise to fulfill after spending 60 days in Puerto Rico helping restore power and rebuild the country’s electrical infrastructure after back-to-back hurricanes left most of the island in the dark.
Not miss his daughter’s birthday.
“We talked about it as a family and decided it was the right thing to do to go and help get the lights back on for everybody on the island,” said Wilkes, a lineman for Gulf Power who has been working the lines for nearly 19 years at home and locations around the country, such as Puerto Rico during storm restoration deployments. “My daughter Ava’s only request was that I make it home for her birthday.”
Along with keeping the lights on for millions of Americans every day, it’s the families that keep many lineworkers working physically demanding and sometimes dangerous jobs.
They could risk electrocution handling thousands of volts of electricity, or they could fall from utility poles while they inspect and repair power lines daily. They’re the first responders who are called out during and after storms, working to restore power in harsh conditions. There is not a time when lineworkers are not on call.
The hours are long, and they often have to spend time away from their families for weeks, missing important family milestones and holidays in order to help restore power in other parts of the country.
It’s that loving and supportive family back home that helps them safely concentrate on keeping the power flowing to customers’ homes and businesses each and every day.
Like Mike Wilkes’ wife, April, and their two daughters, Olivia and Ava, who have been his biggest supporters since he became a lineworker in 1999. The couple, who will celebrate 18 years of marriage this year, depend on each other knowing the job requires a certain amount of sacrifice for both.
“She really is my rock and without her I couldn’t do this job,” said Mike, a lineman with Gulf Power on Panama City Beach, during a recent interview surrounded by his family. “It’s their love and support that keeps me going.”
April knows all about the dangers of the job, a job so hazardous, that it is considered the 10th most dangerous and deadly job in the U.S. It’s something that’s on her mind whenever her husband leaves the house, but something she has to hide for the sake of her children.
“When I worry about his safety, I know that they all watch out for each other and know they all truly treat each other as brothers and family,” said April.
She also knows how “Safety” driven Gulf Power is and the protocols they follow are for a good reason, a reason that brings her husband home safely.
“Being a lineman’s wife is hard at times, but I know he loves his job, especially when he and the other linemen are responsible for getting the lights back on after a storm or in the middle of the night when there is an auto accident and a pole goes down,” said April. “I do worry about him, but I’ve learned to compartmentalize my fears, so I don’t worry the girls, and I know how important it is to him to be sure others are safe and have power to operate air conditioning, heat, and oxygen machines. Those are the life and death things he thinks about when trouble calls come in anytime of the day and night.”
April knew all about what is was like having a family member as a lineworker even before she married Mike. Her grandfather worked for a utility company in Maine, and her aunt and uncle also worked as lineworkers for a New England communications company. Even though she heard many of the horror stories from her relatives, it was April, ironically, that gave Mike, who started out as an electrician, the nudge to become a lineworker.
“I helped him navigate the application process, but it was Mike that passed all of the tests and interviews and truly found who he was working for Gulf Power — a lineman.” she said.
But April will readily admit that sometimes it can get lonely and very busy when her husband and many of the other 184 line workers at Gulf Power are deployed for storm duty to places not only in Northwest Florida and around the state, but faraway places like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and New York. In fact, Gulf Power crews have been deployed more than 40 times since 2008 to help other utility companies get the lights back on after major storms.
“I realize when he is away how lucky I am,” she said. “I do get lonely when he is gone, but it is something you learn to live with. I definitely stay busy and try to keep a normal routine for the girls which helps make the time go by faster.”
Most recently, Mike, along with a crew of seven other lineworkers and support personal from Gulf Power, returned from a 60-day deployment to Puerto Rico to help rebuild the country’s electrical infrastructure after Hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed a majority of the energy grid.
The team was part of a Southern Company contingent — including Mississippi Power, Alabama Power and Georgia Power — and thousands of other utility workers from across the nation assisting with the massive storm restoration.
“The family was very supportive of me leaving to help get the lights back on,” said Mike. “My daughter’s only wish was that I make it back for her birthday and I was going to do everything I could to not disappoint her.”
Mike and April will tell you that it’s been hard being away from home on deployments, missing holidays, dinners, and special events. But after 60 days on the island, he was determined to be home for his daughter Ava’s 12th birthday.
He talked to April and together they conjured a surprise for their youngest daughter, a serious daddy’s girl. With the help of his dad, Mike was picked up after arriving back in Panama City Beach and hid in the back of the truck, crouching low as not to be discovered as they pulled up to the house.
“I wanted to surprise my daughter since I have never missed a birthday and knew she was very sad that I may not make it home,” said Mike. “The look on her face was priceless when she figured out it was me.”
“I thought it was a dog in the back of the truck,” said his daughter Ava. “It made me so happy that he kept his promise.”
Unlike many other working families, there is a certain sacrifice on both parts and sometimes single parenting when the other spouse is gone. But for this couple, they know what’s in store career-wise for Mike—20 more years of life on the lines.
“He loves what he does, and we are extremely proud of Mike,” said April of her 45-year old husband. “Sometimes the public doesn’t really understand what linemen really do. They have a physically and mentally challenging job. It’s dangerous. But it’s a job he loves, and the entire family is 100-percent supportive.”