Hurricane Maria – the 10th most-intense Atlantic hurricane in recorded history – slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, creating the island’s worst natural disaster.
With 155 mph winds, the storm caused numerous fatalities and catastrophic damage, including destruction of the island’s electric grid. Extreme rainfall peaked at 38 inches in the mountainous region of Caguas. Life changed overnight.
A few months later, Xcel Energy crews headed to Caguas – with its rugged terrain and steep narrow roads – to help residents return to a more normal life, after living without electricity since the storm hit. The crews joined employees from numerous U.S. utility companies in a massive and unique mutual-aid effort to restore power across Puerto Rico.
“There are not enough words to describe my experience,” said Wayne Romero, a working foreman at Lipan Distribution Center in Denver. “This was one of the most fulfilling things I have ever participated in. I will treasure the experience forever.”
Romero was particularly struck by the friendliness and gratitude of the people he helped.
“Most people wanted to feed us every day – get us lunch, coffee, water,” he said. “The people would share all they had, which was a lot less then we’re accustomed to. Their culture was beautiful, their generosity was amazing, and their patience was endless.
“Restoring electricity has always been the most satisfying part of my job,” he added. “To work together with so many people, so successfully, was great.”
Company line crews undertook a 63-day power restoration effort on the island, which wrapped up last month. More than 200 employees from all jurisdictions played a role in the effort that began on Jan. 29. Three waves of workers went to Puerto Rico on three-week deployments, and each wave consisted of about 70 employees.
Ben Fowke, chairman, president and CEO, and Larry Crosby, senior vice president of Distribution, visited with employees in March to thank them and see the progress firsthand. Bob Frenzel, executive vice president and CFO, and Kent Larson, executive vice president and group president of Operations, made a similar visit in February.
“This was a historic undertaking, unlike any other previous restoration effort,” Fowke said. “The workers did a tremendous job – their dedication and determination in Puerto Rico demonstrating once again that we have the best line workers in the business.”
Rob Iberg, a line crew foreman at Newport Service Center in Newport, Minn., was a member of the first wave of employees.
“It was the most satisfying experience because the people were so appreciative,” he said. “It was something else – one of those experiences that comes along once in a lifetime.”
Justin Pshigoda, a journeyman lineman from Perryton, Texas, was part of a group of 12 linemen from Texas and New Mexico that worked in the Caguas region.
“We restored power to thousands of homes, a school and a chicken farm,” he said. “At times, we trekked through the jungle with the help of locals equipped with machetes to recover service wire and overhead primary conductors to be reused due to a lack of materials.”
Crews also battled narrow and steep roads in their large utility trucks. Local police officers on motorcycles helped limit traffic so they could perform their restoration work safely.
“My best memory will be working alongside the most selfless and hardworking guys I have ever met,” he said. “The people saw us as heroes, but we are not heroes. We were simply just trying to make a difference by doing what we do every day.”
Katie Lomba, manager of Field Operations and Contract Services in Colorado, brought a special connection to the island when she landed with the second deployment. Her father is buried in the National Cemetery, as is the father of Carlos Figueroa Valeyre, operations manager from Minnesota. The pair visited the cemetery while working in Puerto Rico.
Lomba is the only member of her immediate family who never lived on Puerto Rico because she is the youngest, but her family’s roots go back generations. The family still has a place on the island.
She could tell crews about cultural traditions, such as avoiding “sun showers” – the occurrence when the sun is out while it’s raining. Puerto Ricans believe spirits are present when this happens and avoid going outside. Crews soon knew why lots of people would stay inside a store while the phenomenon passed.
She also helped with translations, working with crews to set up English/Spanish text conversion apps on their phones. “It was fun and rewarding to watch and learn how to communicate with each other,” she said.
Local residents could then thank crews and wish them well on their way down the mountain after long days of work, with text such as – “Thank your family for allowing you to come and help us,” and “Just saw you going down the hill. Have a safe rest.”
“The whole experience was something to be proud of, to be honored,” she said. “It wasn’t just a matter of getting lights back on, but in bringing life back to communities. We all saw the customer experience in a different light. It was very moving for everyone – with an outpouring of compassion and gratitude.
“We got to experience the people and the beauty of their land and culture,” she added. “Lots of loving individuals needed help, and we could provide it.”
Ken Getz, a working foreman from Colorado, was struck by the efforts needed to rebuild the electric system – setting new poles and stringing new wire by reusing bolts, connectors and lots of various pieces of old equipment.
“It took lots of different ideas and thinking to make something work and be reliable,” he said. “We were always make-shifting, but it worked, and always in a safe fashion. We would use old wire and splice it to new. Whatever it took to get wire in the air, that’s what we did.”
In a repeated theme, Getz also said the Puerto Rican people were extremely appreciative.
“They were the best you could meet in your life,” he said. “Really cool people who made you feel like their family.
“When the lights would go on, they were crying because they were so happy, and that made you cry,” he said. “And you’d say, ‘Wow, this is why we do what we do.’”
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