Power to the people

Gilpin County resident Greg Adams helps Puerto Ricans recover from Hurricane Maria

by Patty Unruh

Gilpin County folks are familiar with power outages that occur during windstorms. We have them several times a year, and typically, they are soon over and life is back to normal. It’s tempting to take electrical power – and the utility workers who maintain it – for granted.

Sometimes, though, life brings more than just an ordinary storm and a brief outage. In parts of the world last summer, fierce hurricanes drastically changed people’s lives in just moments, and whole populations are still suffering. Thankfully, U.S. utility employees are helping restore normalcy, including Gilpin County resident Greg Adams. Adams works for Xcel Energy and volunteered to travel with 24 others in eight crews from Colorado during February to restore power to people in Puerto Rico who had been without it for five months. Adams returned to Gilpin on February 19.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was devastating and deadly. Most of the season’s damage was due to three storms – Harvey, Irma, and Maria. In fact, Hurricane Maria made history as the worst natural disaster on record in the American territory of Puerto Rico (PR).

PR, with a population of 3.4 million, lies southeast of Florida in the northeast Caribbean Sea. Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island on September 20, 2017, with sustained winds of 155 mph. The category 4 storm knocked out power to the entire island, destroyed homes and businesses, uprooted trees, and killed at least 64 people.

In the aftermath, residents were housed in emergency shelters, animals were stranded, gasoline was hard to come by, and power lines were scattered across the roads. Nothing was functioning as it should, including the power grid and cell towers. Monetary estimates vary widely, but it’s safe to say the losses are many billions of dollars.

PR’s population is slowly getting back on its feet. The Western Area Power Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, had already gone down to PR even ahead of the hurricane and worked during the storm and for two months afterwards repairing the big transmission lines. Puerto Rico Electric Power (PREPA) does not have the manpower to restore everything single-handedly, so waves of crews from various utility companies in the States have been traveling to the beleaguered island.

Xcel sent crews of 20 to 25 from Colorado and from its Northern States Division in Minnesota and its Southern States Division in Texas. And Xcel is just one of several power companies contracted out by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help in PR. Other companies include American Electric Power (AEP), which is the main governing body over the various power companies, Edison Electric Institute, American Public Power Association, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, PPL Electric Utilities, and Louisiana Light and Power. All the companies used FEMA materials for that agency’s ease in keeping track.

After receiving necessary vaccinations, the Colorado crews embarked on January 29, flying from Denver to Dallas and then from Dallas to San Juan. From San Juan, they traveled to the resort town of Humacao. The next morning, the crews boarded a bus to a staging area in Caguas, a town about a 45-minute drive southwest of Humacao. During their assignment, the workers were housed three or four to a room in lightly damaged condos.

Equipment had already been shipped the third week in December. It had to be quarantined for ten days prior to use, so it was necessary to send it on ahead of time so it would be ready for the workers when they got there.

“When we first arrived, we went over AEP’s requirements for safety guidelines and had orientation,” Adams explained. “Then we were assigned our trucks. I was foreman for my crew, and I went out with the managers and looked at the first job. It was in Caguas, by a hospital and apartment complex. We had to replace poles, put wire back up, and install new conductors.”

Xcel did a different project each week and got settled into a routine.

“We got up at 5 a.m., loaded the bus at our condo, and drove to our staging area where the trucks were. Before the hurricane, they had built a brand-new baseball field. It had a concession stand where they served us our meals and provided a sack lunch. The food was not great, but it kept us alive! We got laundry service every three days. The clothes washers didn’t work well – one crew member put some clothes in before we went to work for the day, and when we got back, the washing machine was still running! We worked every single day, with no days off. But everybody stayed healthy, and there were no injuries.”

He added, “The priority was to get high tension wire in to the substations. The first major thing was to restore power to the hospital and the emergency system. Then to the filling stations so they could dispense gas to cars and generators. We also established refrigeration back to the stores so they could keep goods fresh. Then we started on residences. Each company was assigned a region. Every morning, we checked and verified that other crews had not energized our lines, that the lines were still dead before we began working.”

Xcel put up new poles, straightened existing ones that the hurricane had pushed over, and spliced existing conductors.

The biggest problem was getting more materials. Another issue was finding the power lines – they had been down so long that vegetation was growing over them. An additional challenge was working in the mountainous terrain. Unlike Gilpin County, where roads are reasonably wide and curved, PR roads were narrow and incredibly straight and steep. The power crews sometimes had to close roads just to get their work done without creating a traffic hazard.

Adams noticed that houses were made of cinder block and concrete. Many people had added second stories that had been torn off in the storm. In fact, the workers were amazed to see a fridge and stove sitting on what looked like the top of one house. It was simply that the kitchen had been added to a second story that was now gone.

“Lots of people couldn’t get out of their houses for a week, with the debris and vegetation blocking them in,” Adams said. “They never get snow there, but was like they were ‘snowed in,’ only with debris.”

Restoration was in progress when the Xcel crews arrived.

“Buildings were being repaired. City crews were cleaning up bamboo and palm trees. There had been some power restored, because PREPA crews had been working. What was crazy was that a lot of the signal lights had been torn down, and they had no traffic control. But there was no anger. People were governing their own traffic flow pretty well.”

Cell towers had been knocked out, but cell service was mostly restored by the time Adams arrived.

He also discovered that PR has many of the same stores we do, including Walmart, Home Depot, and Costco, and those stores were stocked with supplies.

The Denver Xcel crew worked mainly in rural areas with large poultry farms. Adams and the other crew members had an opportunity to talk with the PR locals in these areas.

“They were very nice and very grateful. They would bring us bottled water or something to eat. Most of them spoke only Spanish. We had a guy on our crew who spoke Spanish and could communicate with them.”

Adams related one rather tense incident. Each power company was required to stick to their assigned area. Adam’s crew had to pass through town, where power was still out, on the way to their rural job. After two weeks of Xcel trucks driving through without repairing anything, the town residents were getting upset.

“They stopped our truck and stood in front of it and wouldn’t let us drive on. Our guy that spoke Spanish explained that we were very sorry, but we were only allowed to do the work assigned and couldn’t restore power where we were not supposed to be. The people understood, but they were still upset at being kept waiting.”

As with any situation with multiple challenges, there were a few mishaps. In one instance, there was a small transformer serving many people. The transformer’s fuse kept blowing, so the crew thought the transformer was too small. They knew of a bigger unit serving fewer people and decided to swap the two transformers. Then they discovered that the smaller unit just didn’t work properly.

“We felt sorry, because we took power away from the people who had it. There was no other transformer to be had, so we did what it took to get power back on – we ran a big, long wire up to them. There were transformers sitting there, but they weren’t the right voltage. It would be several days before another shipment of transformers would come in.”

It will take a long time, perhaps a year, for the island to fully recover, so the work continues. Another Xcel group flew out the same day Adams’ group returned, and a third wave will be deployed on March 19.

Adams was glad he went.

“School kids had been working in the dark for five months. They screamed with happiness when we restored the power to their school.” He smiled. “It did feel good getting people’s power back on.”

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