This story by Mark Noack was published in the Half Moon Bay Review on July 12.
HALF MOON BAY – It was just past noon on Thursday when a construction backhoe snagged a telephone line and toppled two utility poles along Highway 1. Traffic was backing up and power was out in El Granada.
The man in charge of fixing the problem was already en route to the scene.
While in his PG&E truck in the vicinity of San Gregorio, PG&E troubleshooter Ray Villa glanced at his laptop to see a red bar flash onscreen: “Fallen pole / Coronado Street / El Granada.”
The day just got a lot busier for the 64-year-old utility worker. Fallen utility poles are expected during the winter storm season, but not on a sunny and hot summer day. That’s rare.
Emergency alerts were warning drivers that Highway 1 was closed in both directions because phone cables were stretched across the road. Villa drove up through Half Moon Bay, pulling his truck to the end of a long traffic jam of beachgoers that stretched back to Frenchmans Creek. He had to wait like everyone else, even though it was stressing him out.
“This is the part that drives you crazy,” he vented. “You know if you could just get up there, you’d get the street open.”
Fifteen minutes later, he slowly advanced to Coronado, where an officer waved him through the closed highway. Within the next hour, Villa went up two electrical poles, turned power back on to 1,300 homes, and helped use a construction backhoe to lift the cables off the road — all while whistling a tune to himself.
It was a quick turnaround — but that’s what emergency officials expect from the local PG&E team. While AT&T linemen estimated four hours to respond, Villa has earned a reputation for being first on the scene. Except for a brief lunch break, Villa stayed at the scene until 4:30 a.m., when power was fully restored.
PG&E crew ‘phenomenal’
Coastside Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Chris Rounds was watching Villa and his partner Don Clark work on the utility poles. Without being asked, he gushed praise on them.
“They’re phenomenal,” he said. “They really facilitate the process whenever they’re out here.”
A lifelong Coastside resident, Villa is something of a one-man institution. After working for PG&E for 44 years, he’s accrued a mental map of every transformer, utility pole and wire on the coast, usually with a personal story to pair with each. In an age of satellite mapping and automated systems, the rural side of the Peninsula, with its hundreds of miles of electrical circuitry, remains an area where Villa’s hands-on experience and geographic familiarity is invaluable.
When problems arise, many locals don’t bother to call the PG&E hotline; instead, they call Villa on his personal phone. If they don’t have his cell number, they call his wife and she forwards the message.
Sometimes Villa’s techniques belie the digital age. To learn the extent of a power outage, he sometimes calls all his family members who are spread out on the Coastside to ask if their lights still work. Addresses sometimes fail on rural backroads, and he prefers to get a location by asking callers to name the nearby farms and ranches.
“I usually get a lot more info from customers, instead of the dispatchers,” he says.
He isn’t a technological Neanderthal; he uses a cell phone and laptop and is routinely trained in the latest equipment. But some gadgets, he says, “go to hell” in the event of a heavy storm, and being resourceful is more important than having the latest technology. One of the hardest upgrades for him to accept was to give up his trusty pickup for a newer ride with a hydraulic bucket lift. On the plus side, the truck meant he no longer had to climb up electrical poles.
Driving around town, Villa is like a small-town celebrity with a reputation that precedes him. He jokes that he’s been underneath most homes on the coast.
Villa first joined the company after graduating from Half Moon Bay High School in 1966. Stopping in the San Gregorio General Store one day during his hay-hauling job, he ran into Jack Bernardo, a PG&E general foreman who liked the cut of the young man’s jib. Villa was offered a job on the spot.
“I figured, I’d give it a try, like what the hell?” Villa said. “Who would have thought after all these years, I’d become the guy for the coast?”
Many young men of that generation also signed up with PG&E because it was one of the few big employers on the coast at the time. PG&E supervisors came to see the Coastside farm boys as excellent grunts, said Half Moon Bay Councilman John Muller, who also worked for the utility for a time.
‘They knew we were hard workers’
“They always knew they could hire the Coastside guys,” Muller said. “We couldn’t always pass the math test, but they knew we were hard workers.”
Muller, in fact, remembers writing Villa’s first six-month probationary evaluation.
When he first joined the utility, friends say Villa was so scrappy he looked shrunken in his work clothes. Today, he has the muscular build that comes from a lifetime of physical labor, along with the battle scars from the job. He has red scrapes across one eye from an oak tree limb that days earlier had raked the left side of his face. He broke his left knee in 2008 after being knocked down by a branch when he was chain-sawing through a eucalyptus tree. He’s fallen from a few utility poles and singed his eyebrows from igniting pilot lights.
During periods of heavy rainfall, Villa is accustomed to working long hours to get power back online. Whereas today people are surprised when a blackout goes longer than a couple hours, in the 1990s an outage could last for days because roads were completely washed out. His personal record is more than 100 hours of nonstop work, but he says the utility has urged him to avoid such work sprees.
Having worked for so long, he is thinking more and more about retirement. He says he still enjoys the job, even though it often requires diving into the storm in the middle of the night.
“My wife says I won’t know what to do when the wind is blowing and it’s raining, and I’m laying here,” he said. “I could’ve retired years ago, but I like my job.”
This article is reprinted with permission of the Half Moon Bay Review.