Five TVA employees have returned from Puerto Rico where they supported the restoration of electricity following the devastating hurricane that blacked out the entire island. What they experienced might surprise you.
TVA Transmission team members Shane Beasley, Randy Perry, Jeff Phillips, Heath Smith and Cody Young stepped up to the challenge of leaving home for four to six weeks to aid the electricity restoration efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island’s power grid last September. They joined crews from across the U.S. who are helping restore power to the island.
“Under the Stafford Act, TVA was asked to help with disaster relief by providing personnel,” says Clayton Clem, vice president, Strategic Transmission Projects. “Each person went where they were needed to support FEMA, DOE and local power authorities by putting their years of transmission experience to work to advise or provide field engineering.”
Jeff Phillips, transmission civil design engineer, was based in rural Ponce on the south central part of the island. “People ask why restoration efforts took so long and from my experience it was getting the materials shipped in that were needed but also the roads,” he says. “There were potholes that would swallow a car. Based on road conditions, it might take an hour to go 16 miles.”
Randy Perry, transmission construction foreman, was also based near Ponce; he notes that there was a greater language barrier in the south with less English speakers. “Most everyone knows some English, just not enough to feel confident,” says Perry, “My Spanish was on about the same level, so that made it difficult to communicate.”
The full extent of the hurricane damage was obscured due to the rapidly growing vegetation in the tropical climate, according to Shane Beasley, a transmission civil design engineer who was stationed in the more urban area of San Juan on the north side of the island. “The electrical infrastructure was not only outdated, but battling the vegetation was a real problem,” he says. “I think this is one of the reasons so many people carry a machete. It was not easy to get used to people walking up to talk to you with machete in hand.”
Bringing people together from different utility backgrounds across the U.S. and asking them to work as a team to restore power was a challenge in itself. “We were advisers for DOE and working between FEMA and the PREPA local power company with crews from all over the U.S.,” says Phillips. “You definitely had to assert yourself in the beginning to gain the trust of the team, let them know you had valuable contributions and were there to help.”
Setting priorities was a daily essential. “We were looking for key areas of need such as hospitals and schools to restore power first,” Phillips recalls. “In one particular situation we were able to restore power to a family whose son, Javier [pictured below], was on a ventilator and feeding tube. You can imagine the high cost of running a gas or diesel generator just to sustain life for several months.”
Cody Young and Heath Smith are experienced linemen working in Transmission Field Operations. Young was stationed out of San Juan reviewing deviation requests and making site visits to validate proper use of resources. Smith served in a different capacity involving oversight of safety aspects and helicopter work. “We worked with a variety of teams from across the U.S. on some of the most difficult terrain on the island,” says Smith. Given that a typical day lasted 12 to 14 hours, it was grueling work.
“I had heard rumors and read news stories of how bad the storm damage and the crime were, but I didn’t experience that,” says Perry. “I felt safe working there and met lots of wonderful people. There’s no telling how many people’s homes our crews were invited to and shared meals. It seems someone was always inviting us for a meal—all 20 plus members of our crew!”
Phillips shares a similar story of hospitality: “We were invited to a pig roast in the middle of the street. Neighbors would cook for you to keep you from leaving. They knew you would get more work done if you didn’t leave for lunch and it was also their appreciation of us being there.”
But the best thing was seeing power restored, says Young. “People were excited and you could hear the children shouting with joy,” he remembers. “The people there were so kind to us and proud to show us their homes and tell us their history. They would give you the shirts off their backs.”
Each who answered the call to assist Puerto Rico returned home with a new outlook and new friendships. “I’m thankful I had the opportunity to go and gain this experience, but it wasn’t something we did alone, our families committed to us leaving for this mission as well,” says Beasley.
Phillips was reminded—in a positive way—of the tornadoes in 2011 that damaged TVA’s transmission system: “I appreciate the response plan and the well maintained transmission system we have at TVA. We were able to restore power to everyone within two weeks of the tornado.”
Working with other teams from across the U.S., the TVA team members developed some lasting connections from this shared experience. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget and I’m still in touch with some that I worked with,” says Perry. “I also want to express what a beautiful place Puerto Rico is. If you visit, be sure to get out of the city and into the mountains. There you will find beautiful scenery, waterfalls, friendly people and good food.”