A few dozen power line workers from Western Area Power Administration have returned from the U.S. Virgin Islands after restoring the backbone of the electrical grid there. The entire power system of the U.S. Virgin Islands was severely damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria in September.
“It wasn’t just an energy mission. It was a humanitarian mission,” said WAPA Incident Commander Jim Kendrick, who also is the vice president of transmission asset management for the Desert Southwest region. “When people don’t have power, they don’t have anything: no air conditioning or refrigeration, no communication, no food.”
As the first deployed line crews to arrive, WAPA employees were tasked and paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair about 25 miles of transmission lines on St. Thomas following Hurricane Irma’s landfall, Sept. 6. When WAPA crews completed their deployment, Nov. 29, 40 percent of the power system had been restored, energizing more than 20,000 residents who had been without power since Sept. 6—about 80 days in the dark for some.
The transmission system is the power grid’s highway, connecting electricity from its generation source to distribution power lines that feed into homes and businesses. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the St. Thomas transmission system powers both St. Thomas and neighboring St. John, together home to more than 55,000 people. Restoring the transmission system had to occur before smaller electrical lines to homes and businesses could regain power.
“It was complete devastation—about as bad as I have ever seen in my career,” said WAPA Lineman Jim Berryman from Casper, Wyoming, who also helped repair the New Jersey power grid after Hurricane Sandy.
In all, 36 WAPA power system experts from nine states deployed starting Sept. 17. The volunteer crews rotated deployments with 25 of them in the U.S. Virgin Islands at any given time; a few worked the entire mission, missing Halloween and Thanksgiving with their families.
“When we first arrived, we could only see about a dozen lights on the island from the ship, energized by individual generators,” said WAPA Lineman Kai Bothwell from Phoenix, Arizona, who was on island, Sept. 27 through Oct. 27. “By the time I left, the majority of the lights were on across that side of the mountain. It was a real sense of accomplishment.”
Virgin Islands power restoration
“Even though we were working in unfamiliar territory on an unfamiliar system, the crews were able to restore the transmission system beautifully,” said Kendrick, who has experience running power operations in tropical island climates. “We repaired the U.S. Virgin Islands power system like it was our own.”
Employees worked 12- and 13-hour days, seven days a week in mountainous jungle for more than two months. The crews lodged in docked ships, first in a merchant marine vessel and later in a retired cruise ship.
“The majority of people were so thankful. They were giving us water and soda from houses that didn’t have roofs on them,” said Bothwell. “On the merchant marine ship, we were in 55-person berths in tiny cots and waiting in lines for showers. Yet, we were like the Ritz Carlton compared to the citizens. We felt guilty because so many people had nothing.”
The deployment was WAPA’s first assignment outside the continental U.S. crews working on the small island quickly encountered big challenges obtaining materials to rebuild the grid, as well as essentials such food and water.
“We were chasing the materials. Finding materials was a full-time job for three people, and they stayed just ahead of us. They always found the material; we always wanted more,” said Berryman. “We had to be creative, salvaging undamaged parts from otherwise damaged poles. Even then, something as simple as a needed bolt could eat a guy alive for half a day.”
“I am so proud of the people who volunteered to deploy away from their families and also the team at home who supported them,” said WAPA Administrator and CEO Mark Gabriel. “They are dedicated and committed to our mission and our core value of serving like your lights depend on it.”
Power restoration continues in USVI
Hundreds of power line workers from other utilities, as well as employees from FEMA and Department of Energy, remain in the U.S. Virgin Islands to continue repairs to the distribution system. The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority strives to restore power to 90 percent of the territory by Christmas.
“Even with the communication and logistic challenges, this was one of the smoothest operations I have ever worked,” said Kendrick. “What amazed me most is, regardless of the distance, we can still perform our mission brilliantly, like we were in Phoenix, Arizona, or Denver, Colorado.”
WAPA is also supporting U.S. Army Corps of Engineers power recovery efforts on Puerto Rico. Since mid-October, three engineers have deployed to serve as subject matter experts.
“A day or two after we returned to work, we were talking about wanting to go back. We made a difference, and there was still a lot of work to be done,” said Bothwell. “I’d go back in a heartbeat.”