By Kathleen Mascarenas, Salt River Project
Three months after Mother Nature unleashed a Category 5 hurricane on Puerto Rico, eight Salt River Project employees first arrived on the island to work alongside the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) to help restore electricity in the Carolina region. On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria became the worst hurricane in the island's history with 155-mile-per-hour winds. As a result, Bret Marchese, SRP director of distribution maintenance, says the total devastation was worse than they expected.
"To see the damage, the number of power poles still down, the number of towns still out of power is amazing," he says. "It's been a huge learning curve. We have had to get to learn and know the people, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) processes, and understand the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, contract crews and how everyone works together as one team, with one mission through the incident management team."
On the first day, Team American Public Power Association (APPA), made up of 10 utility workers from SRP and Austin Energy, were among six other teams that descended upon San Juan to be on-boarded during an eight-hour Incident Management Team (IMT) training workshop. For the next two days, the 10-member IMT conducted damage assessment throughout the Carolina region as well as developed a command center inside a PREPA operations center.
"It's been hectic with a lot of unknowns, but I just think how difficult it must be for the people of Puerto Rico without power for so long," said Victor Guerrero, an SRP regional warehouse manager.
Dorian Speed, supervisor of distribution design for SRP, says while Puerto Rico is a beautiful island, it has been through a lot and sustained a significant amount of damage.
"When we flew (into San Juan) our plane landed at night and there was a lot of darkness, but the people here are resilient," he says. "It's a blessing to be here and do all we can to help them, and SRP is allowing us that opportunity."
At this point, thousands of residents throughout Puerto Rico have been without power for more than 100 days. Team APPA is working up to 16 hour days to do its part to complete the mission of rebuilding the Puerto Rico Power Authority's grid as safely and quickly as possible.
"I'm honored to represent Austin Energy in this collaborative effort and to work side by side with staff from SRP and PREPA," said Austin Energy Director of Smart Grid and System Operations Danny Ee. "Building strong working relationships has become top priority in this initial phase of the effort."
Under an Incident Command structure, seven 10-person IMTs have been formed to assist PREPA with direction from a central command center in San Juan to manage and coordinate the nearly 3,500 utility field workers currently deployed on the island in seven regions. SRP has committed to two deployments, with team members working for 30 consecutive days during each rotation. The first wave of employees remained through Jan. 8 and were away from loved ones throughout the holiday season. The second deployment, or Wave 2, has replaced the first round of employees and is currently embedded in Puerto Rico and has started phase two of the assignment.
"Our role is to do whatever they need from us to get the power restored here in Puerto Rico," Marchese said. "We are helping to create efficiencies in areas that will most benefit PREPA. I think we've made a lot of progress in getting information together to put the right resources in the areas where they are most needed and restore circuits as quickly and safely as possible."
The last time SRP assisted another utility in restoring power because of a major natural disaster was in November 2012. More than 60 SRP employees spent two weeks working alongside Long Island Power Authority and other utilities, replacing damaged power poles, overhead lines and damaged electrical equipment as more than 1 million customers in the New York region lost power during Hurricane Sandy.