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Army Corps battalion generates power

LULING, La. -- With 30 minutes to go before the lights went out last week in a Superdome filled with chaos and fear, they improvised a solution that kept the power on, and yesterday they remained at work, making sure hospitals, morgues, funeral homes, and other critical services have backup juice until the lights come on for good.

''That's what we're here for," said Sergeant Jose L. Olivieri of the 249th Engineer Battalion of the Army Corps of Engineers. ''We live for this."

As members of the 82d Airborne patrol downtown New Orleans and National Guard troops stand guard on street corners, M-16s at the ready, members of the prime power engineering battalion have wrenches, not guns, as their weapons.

For them, victory is measured in kilowatts.

And right now, state officials said, every kilowatt is critical.

''It's just like being in a war zone," said Army First Sergeant Maurice A. Thomas, a member of the Army Corps so-called Prime Power Battalion. ''We do the same thing in combat. Power is important. Without power there's no lights, no electricity, no information. Electricity is the biggest morale booster there is."

James Lee Witt, a former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who has been hired by Governor Kathleen Blanco to help direct the state's disaster response, called it essential that the power lines buzz back to life.

As of Wednesday, the Louisiana Public Service Commission reported that 503,683 customers remained without power across a vast area of the southeastern part of the state.

''You need power for everything," Witt said. ''Time is of the essence."

Yesterday, as they sped to this small town southwest of New Orleans, Thomas and Oliveri shook their heads in awe at the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina: railroad tracks twisted like pretzels, massive trees lopped off midtrunk, and homes splintered by the ferocious winds.

As their colleagues in the Army Corps of Engineers work to get hundreds of pumps in place to drain the water out of New Orleans, Thomas and Olivieri concentrated on power.

At St. Charles Parish Hospital, where lights have been flickering intermittently since they were restored five days after the storm, the engineers pronounced the hospital's backup generator sufficient, but they logged its location and a possible site for an emergency generator just in case.

As the refrigeration unit on a coroner's truck whirred nearby, they said they have been thanked for their services so often and with such genuineness, they don't want to stop for food.

''The smiles and the thanks we get is what we'll take back home," said Olivieri, 38 of Ponce, Puerto Rico. ''It can't get any better than that truly."

But a week ago Tuesday as floodwaters rose outside the Superdome last week, Thomas a 38-year-old Iraq war veteran from Gainesville, Ga., and Olivieri said they began to worry because military police could no longer guarantee their safety.

And there was another problem. The dome's 500-kilowatt power plant that runs on 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel was running low. At 9:30 a.m., the day after the storm slammed ashore, they were told that the dome would go dark at noon, a terrifying prospect for the 25,000 evacuees there.

Using a jury-rigged system of misfitting hoses and clamps from the dome's plumbing department, the engineers hooked up an auxiliary tank with little time to spare.

''By 11:30 we had it," Thomas said. ''There would have been total chaos in there. . . . I can't help but wonder that if we hadn't kept the lights on, would they have evacuated those people sooner. New Orleans went from a progressive city to a Third World country in a matter of hours."

Stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., the Prime Power Battalion distributes electrical power to support combat troops and disaster victims.

As power companies work to repair 1,660 broken feeder lines, 263 substations, and innumerable poles and wires, Thomas and Olivieri said they do not expect to return to Virginia any time soon.

''We're doing what we can," Thomas said. ''When people thank us, I say, 'You're welcome,' because there's just so much to be done. We can't do everything. We're doing what we can."

Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com.

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