Everyone in town pitched in when natural gas pipeline was damaged

Piedmont Natural Gas employees worked quickly and safely to restore service in North Carolina town

David Hodgkins admits it sounds hokey to say it felt like a family affair when 1,709 customers in Farmville, N.C., lost natural gas service one cold January night.

But when Piedmont Natural Gas workers rushed to the rescue, they were welcomed by residents whose warmth makes this a story worth telling for Natural Gas Utility Workers’ Day, March 18.

Darrel Evans, senior service specialist. More than 100 Piedmont Natural Gas employees helped restore service in Farmville.

“People were treating these guys almost like long-lost cousins,” said Hodgkins, the town manager.

“It was really nice to see everyone coming together for a common good,” said Matt Yarbrough, a Piedmont Natural Gas senior service technician who drove 3½ hours from his home in Salisbury to help. Yarbrough was among 63 technicians from across the state who quickly made the journey to Farmville. More than 100 employees worked to restore service.

Farmville, west of Greenville in eastern North Carolina, is home to 4,700 people. On Friday, Jan. 29, a natural gas distribution line was damaged, leaving 1,517 homes and 192 businesses without heat and hot water.

The high that day was 37 degrees.

The accident required a three-part response from Piedmont: turn off customers’ natural gas meters; install a new pipe; return to customers’ homes to turn on the meters and check appliances to ensure proper operation. Unlike when the power goes out and suddenly the lights come back on, restoring natural gas service required two visits to every customer’s home or business in addition to repairs to the line.

Trey Johnson, senior measurement technician. Natural Gas Utility Workers’ Day recognizes the contributions of natural gas utilities employees.

You wouldn’t expect a Piedmont veteran like Yarbrough to describe all that work as “a lot of fun.” But when everyone, from the Piedmont responders to town officials to customers, rallied around the effort, you wind up with a mission accomplished.

“Success,” Yarbrough said, “is the best part.”

It was a team effort.

Town officials worked with Piedmont to keep customers in the know; a COVID-19 safe warming station was set up at the fire station; Courtyard by Marriott Greenville opened a floor for workers; businesses and residences offered snacks and water to workers.

Technicians worked until midnight Jan. 29 and then returned at 6 a.m. Saturday. By Sunday evening, service had been restored to all but three customers. Those three were up and running Monday morning.

Heidi Bond and Operations Supervisor Gene Nichols at a Piedmont facility in Farmville.

“It’s unheard of for that type of restoration to be done that quickly,” said Heidi Bond, a Piedmont field operations manager.

In addition to getting service restored, technicians answered customers’ questions and allayed concerns.

No one needed a faster response than Joe Pickett and his wife, Elaine. The two came down with COVID-19 just before the disruption took out their heat and hot water. They set up electric heaters and huddled under blankets, waiting for the cavalry to arrive. A technician (they didn’t get his name) restored their natural gas service 27 hours after it went down.

“He was as nice as anybody who ever came to my house to do work,” said Elaine Pickett. Her only regret from the weekend that Piedmont Natural Gas came to the rescue?

“I’d have cooked him a meal,” she said. “But with us having COVID, I know he didn’t want to come into the house.”

Natural Gas Utility Workers’ Day on March 18 recognizes the work by employees of natural gas utilities whatever the hour or need. It also highlights the environmental, safety and cost benefits of using clean, reliable and affordable natural gas. Piedmont Natural Gas distributes natural gas to more than 1 million residential, commercial and industrial customers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.