It was dark and cold, and a heavy rain had settled over Central Kentucky.
It was a raw night to be outside.
"There's no way you can stay dry when it's raining like that," Mark Mekus said. But his crew from the Davis H. Elliot Co. worked though the night until electricity was restored to the Harrodsburg water plant.
Climbing slick utility poles, removing downed trees, stringing new power lines: "You have a job to do and you have to do it" despite the weather, said Mekus, general foreman for Elliot, a Lexington electrical contractor that works for utilities in 11 states.
In the nearly two weeks since the devastating ice storm struck Kentucky, more than half of Elliot's 1,300 employees have been drawn into the state from as far away as Oklahoma to get the electricity back on wherever they are sent by Kentucky Utilities, LG&E, Kentucky Power and the rural energy cooperatives.
About 750 Elliot employees are reinforcing the regular crews of Kentucky's utilities to repair damage caused primarily by ice and fallen trees. In normal times, the company's Kentucky work force is about 300.
A lot of those workers who are out restoring power are trained in Lexington, at Elliot's operations headquarters on Blue Sky Parkway, between Interstate 75 and Athens.
The 63-year-old company has to train most of its employees because there's not a large pool of skilled workers to hire from.
"There's not a lot of people who can do the work we do," said Eric Minton, Elliot's chief operating officer.
The company was founded in Roanoke, Va., and its corporate headquarters is there. But Lexington is the hub of its electrical activity.
The company's controlling stock is held by Bill Elliot, the son of the founder and chairman of the board, but he is gradually selling company shares to Elliot employees. They can buy shares with profit-sharing money, so there is no out-of-pocket cost to them, Minton said.
Elliot's competitors include Pike Electric Corp. and Quanta Services Inc., both listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Its main customers are utilities, such as KU.
"It's been a really good working relationship," KU spokesman Cliff Feltham said. That relationship began more than 50 years ago, in 1948.
Contractors increase KU's work force during crises and provide specialized service during normal times.
Elliot's specialties include heavy construction, such as putting up larger poles and transmission lines, above and below ground.
Power-line construction is about 80 percent of the company's business.
"We have just kind of delegated and relegated that to Elliot," Feltham said. "Elliot has been a great partner with us for doing those kinds of construction jobs."
Although KU has used contractors for decades, the use of outside labor intensified after the KU-LG&E merger in 1998. Buyouts reduced the number of employees of the merged company, leaving worker shortages in some areas, Feltham said.
"The best way to do it (solve the problem), rather than hiring new employees, was to see if we could do it with contract labor," he said. "And so it's been a great, successful venture for us to have those contract folks onboard."
One overriding requirement is that contract employees have the same safety training and "work at the same safety level that our own employees would work," Feltham said.
When it comes to restoring power, the utility sets the priorities and directs the Elliot crews to trouble spots around the state, Minton said.
They work 16-hour shifts while restoring power for strangers — even though during this ice storm, some Elliot employees had no electricity at their own homes, Mekus said. In one crew, the homes of three of the four members were dark for days.
"We'll travel wherever we need to go" — around Kentucky or from Michigan to Texas to Florida, Minton said. Elliot crews have been heavily involved after most recent disasters, including hurricanes and tropical storms along the Gulf of Mexico.
Because the utilities tell Elliot crews where to work and what circuits to repair, electricity is sometimes restored to parts of a neighborhood but not to others. Residents complain to Elliot crew members, who can't do anything about it.
"It's really hard to explain that to upset customers," Minton said. "They generally understand — they don't like it, but they usually understand it."
Mekus said most "people have been really nice" after the ice storm. In some cases, they have brought food and hot coffee to workers, and have delivered hugs when their lights came back on.
After the long days, the crew are usually sent to a nearby motel so they can get rested and resume quickly the next day. Tired people make more mistakes, and that can be dangerous, even fatal, when working with electricity in bad weather, Minton said.
"When you are in for the long haul — and this is the long haul — you have to get rest," Minton said. "You have to get a pace going."
Reach Jim Jordan at (859) 231-3242 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3242.