When Hurricane Irma first popped up on the radar in early September, Puerto Rico braced for major devastation — but at the last minute, the storm changed course and passed just north of the island. Although the damage was less than expected, the hurricane still managed to knock out electricity for around a million residents.
Just two weeks later, with tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans still out of power from Irma, the island once again found itself in the path of massive Category 5 hurricane, and this time Puerto Rico took a direct hit. Hurricane Maria decimated the entire island, leaving all 3.4 million U.S. citizens who reside there with no electricity.
The restoration process has been lengthy and challenging.* In January of 2018, with large swaths of the island still without power, IBEW 1245 members from Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) were called upon to assist with the restoration efforts. The SMUD linemen were among 800 electrical workers from 29 different utilities who came from the mainland to provide mutual aid to Puerto Rico and its utility, known as PREPA.
The SMUD crews were dispatched in two separate waves, and each 13-person team, consisting of two line crews and one vehicle mechanic, spent a little over a month in Puerto Rico. The Local 1245 members worked tirelessly, seven days a week for 12 or more hours each day. They had just one single day off, about halfway through their month-long assignment.
Line Foreman and 16-year IBEW member Cayleb Bowman was part of the first wave. He arrived on the island in mid-January, and stayed on the island for 34 days before being relieved by the second wave of linemen.
“When we arrived, we got onboarded, we were handed [informational] packages, and then we started getting materials and plans to do our job. The next day, we went to work,” said Bowman. “Our scope was mostly pole replacement, setting poles that were missing, putting wire back up, and trying to restore the system as it was before the hurricane.”
Bowman and his team spent the first two weeks working primarily on backyard pole sets in the more urban areas, and the second two weeks, they were sent out into the rural outskirts of town, where they encountered some circumstances that they weren’t accustomed to, particularly related to the terrain.
“We’re used to working in the hills, but working in the jungle was new and definitely challenging,” recalled Bowman. “They have some of the biggest bamboo I’ve ever seen in my life, it’s kind of crazy. We had a few spots where we were trying to recover wire from bushes that were 10 to 12 feet tall. We ended up buying machetes to cut our way through the jungle.”
They also had to contend with tropical weather, including warm temperatures, high humidity and sudden storms.
“We’d have these tremendous downpours. It would rain for five minutes, and then clear up,” said Bowman. “There was no time to get in rain gear, we’d just deal with it. We would be soaking wet, but then we’d dry up in an hour. It was actually a nice way to cool off.”
Getting around Puerto Rico also proved to be somewhat of a challenge for the Local 1245 crews. Line Foreman Ben Bassett, who was part of the second wave from SMUD that arrived in Puerto Rico in February, likened driving on the island to “the wild wild west.”
“There were hardly any street signs or traffic lights left functioning after storm … we had to kind of feel our way through the intersections,” said Bassett. “We definitely needed to keep our heads on a swivel while driving.”
“It took some time to get used to the roads and how everybody drives,” concurred Bowman, noting that many of the roads in the areas where the crews were working were quite narrow, and some could barely accommodate their large line trucks that they had shipped from Sacramento.
“We pretty much ended up shutting some the roads down in order to get the work done. But we did what we could to get customers by, so we weren’t totally screwing up traffic,” he said.
One might assume that the customers wouldn’t be too pleased with the workers who were blocking their roadways, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Both Bassett and Bowman found the Puerto Rican people to be incredibly kind and grateful for the work that the SMUD crews were performing.
“We interacted with the locals constantly … and everyone we met was very helpful and appreciative,” said Bassett. “They saw that we were away from our own families in order to help their families out, and everyone welcomed us with open arms.”
“The people down there were amazing. They were very happy to see us. They loved us,” said Bowman. “They fed us amazing meals, and they were always bringing us water, juice and soda. They took very good care of us, and were very accommodating, whether we needed vehicles moved, or access to property, or whatever it was. It was awesome.”
The crews were also pleased to find that the language barrier was relatively easy to overcome.
“A few of us spoke a little bit of Spanish, and some of the locals speak English, but the majority of [the communication] was done using translator apps on our phones,” said Bassett. “There was a bit of a learning curve, but after a week or so, we were pretty much cut in to the things we needed to say and how to say them.”
The Local 1245 members appreciated getting the opportunity to assist their fellow citizens during a time of great need.
“Being able to help that many people who had been out of power for that long was amazing,” said Bowman. “They were so grateful. It’s a great feeling.”
“The experience really made me appreciate what we have at SMUD, especially in terms of the training and materials that we have access to on a daily basis,” said Bassett. “I would absolutely go back if they needed me. I’d have to clear it with the wife first, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
*By request from SMUD and the American Public Power Association, IBEW Local 1245 and its members cannot comment on the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the complexities of the restoration, or the political factors involved in the process. To read more about the progress in Puerto Rico, visit https://www.publicpower.org/blog/helping-puerto-rico-recover-maria.
Photos courtesy of SMUD