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Utility crews have only so much power

They are cheered like football stars who make game-winning touchdowns.

They are jeered like receivers who drop the ball in the end zone.

They are offered bribes.

They are mobbed by angry residents who try to chase them up utility poles.

This is what it means to be a power company worker in the Tampa Bay area.

Wednesday morning, as on mornings for almost every day of the past six weeks, thousands of utility workers gathered in the predawn darkness at staging areas around the bay area to begin yet another 16- to 18-hour day.

At the parking garage behind Dillard's at University Mall in Tampa, crewmen from as far as Arkansas stood under a hazy moon and florescent lights to eat, be briefed and review maps.

This staging area, one of six run by Tampa Electric Co., will serve as the crews' meeting point at the beginning and the end of each day until everyone has their power restored. That means the crews could be here until Sunday.

Inside the parking garage, the utility workers sat on metal chairs at long tables draped in white paper cloths and, over a catered breakfast of bacon and eggs, shared their experiences _ from the funny to the frightening.

The most frequently asked question of all the crews is "When?"

"Everyone wants to know when their power is going to come back on," said Jose Manzano, a 26-year-old Tampa Electric meter reader. "But we just don't know."

Manzano, like most of Tampa Electric's employees, has had to take on new tasks. He's now an assessor, canvassing the county with field engineers to find problems.

One woman tried to bribe fellow meter-reader-turned-assessor Arthur Dunnigan Jr. with $100.

"Where was this?" asked Carlos Pagan.

"Palma Ceia," Dunnigan replied.

"That's it? In that area? All they're going to offer you is $100?" Pagan asked, drawing laughter.

"I couldn't take it," Dunnigan said. "I just told her I'm sorry, that I didn't know when her power would be restored."

Pagan told a story of his own. On Tuesday, he was surveying the Oldsmar area, around Hillsborough Avenue, when he saw two main power lines down. He flagged down a troubleman, a more experienced crew member who works alone and tries to solve problems without having to call in reinforcements. In 20 minutes, with much of the neighborhood watching, the troubleman had the power back on.

What happened next astounded Pagan.

"It was like a football game," he said. "People were cheering, shaking our hands."

Robert Barthelette Jr., a Tampa Electric environmental coordinator whose post-hurricane job is to check for hydraulic spills, said he stopped at a McDonald's in Brandon on Tuesday night.

"When she saw my TECO shirt, she gave me my meal for free," Barthelette said. "And she supersized it."

The brushes with celebrity are tempered by the response from some of the hot, sweaty, anxious homeowners.

"They yell at us about the trees being in the lines, about everything," Pagan said. "You're heroes in some spots; others, you just want to roll up the windows and pray, "Please don't hurt us.' "

At times, residents have crowded around Tampa Electric trucks and tried to stop them from leaving areas without power.

"They want answers," Manzano said. "They want us to put on our hats and climb those poles. We have to tell them that we're here to assess. But they don't want to hear it."

The angry residents appear oblivious to the sacrifices the workers make. Manzano said when he leaves home in the morning, his wife and daughter are asleep. When he gets home, they're asleep.

"I miss them. I miss life," Manzano said.

It's like that, too, for the out-of-state workers, many of whom were here after Charley and Frances.

"I'm in the same hotel, eating the same meals, driving down the same roads," said Mitch Duncan, a 45-year-old lineman from Entergy Arkansas.

He was in Tampa two weeks ago, but said he he can't remember which hurricane's aftermath he was dealing with then.

"They all run together," he said.

All he knows is he drove two days and more than 1,000 miles to get here, spent three exhausting days working the lines, then drove back to Arkansas. A week later, he was called back. He arrived Tuesday night while his 13-year-old son played a football game back home in Hot Springs, Ark.

"I hear he did real well," Duncan said. "I wish I had been there to see it."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or nguyensptimes.com.

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