Restoring Power to Puerto Rico: '19,000 Miles of Tangled Wires'
(JEFFERSON, GA. Jan. 29, 2018) — Imagine all residential and industrial members in the Jackson EMC service area and beyond are totally without electricity -- all lines were demolished, all poles were on the ground, all substations were flooded. That is the equivalent to what a crew of linemen witnessed when they arrived in Puerto Rico on November 3.
Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the island of Puerto Rico when it made landfall on September 20 and caused unprecedented destruction to the island 3.4 million people call home. The Category 5 hurricane destroyed infrastructure, including generation, transmission and distribution systems of electricity. In November, Jackson EMC released a five-man crew from Pike, normally assigned to the Neese District in Madison County, for a 30-day period to help in the island’s power restoration effort. Upon their return, they sat down over lunch with another crew scheduled for a three-month assignment. The crew will be joining 1,000 other contractors expected to arrive from across the continental United States in late January.
“We watched the devastation on the news, but it was worse than any storm damage I’ve seen here,” said veteran crew leader Larry Ferguson, who has seen his share of storm damage in 20 years of service. “I was expecting to see wooden poles like we have here,” he continued, “Instead, we found concrete triple circuits on the ground. That tells you the level of devastation and why it’s taking so long to restore power.”
What is a concrete triple circuit, you ask? While the distribution poles used by Jackson EMC and other power companies in the United States are wooden, distribution poles in Puerto Rico were made of concrete, similar in size to our transmission poles. Each circuit on the pole had four wires, totaling 12 wires per pole.
“So, a hurricane strong enough to knock over virtually all the concrete poles is massive,” said Ferguson. “Almost 19,000 miles of wire were tangled in a big jumble.”
The crew who returned included Ben Brissey, Larry Ferguson, Devin Humpheirs, Drake Lathan, and Matt Snow. They arrived in Puerto Rico on November 3 and stayed three weeks, including Thanksgiving. “The people on the island were so friendly and welcoming to us,” said Snow. “The folks at the hotel didn’t have power at their own homes, but they came to work everyday with a smile. They were really grateful we were there. For Thanksgiving, they made turkey, rice and dressing for us.”
The crew stayed at a small beach hotel that didn’t have electricity either, but was powered through a generator, “You really discover how addicted you are to social media on a trip like this,” said Brissey. “We had intermittent internet signals and no Wi-Fi, so we really made friends with other contractors and workers who had come to help.”
The crew was assigned to help repair distribution lines to a hospital in the Rio Grande area in northeastern Puerto Rico. “Just like here, hospitals are a priority,” said Snow.
Keith Taylor, another veteran line foreman and crew leader for the next mission, listened intently to the stories and advice from the crew members who had returned from Puerto Rico. “I think the best advice I’ve heard is to take plenty of sunscreen and granola bars,” said Taylor.
“I’m really excited for the young guys on my crew, who will see first-hand the difference you can make in the lives of others. Four of these guys are under age 22 and never been on a plane. They volunteered for this assignment, and from what I’ve heard from the guys today, this is going be the biggest challenge they’ve faced. We have an idea of what to expect now,” said Taylor, “and no one has backed out.”
- Pike linemen Devin Humphries, Larry Ferguson, Ben Brissey, Drake Lathan and Matthew Snow returned from helping in power restoration efforts in Puerto Rico in November.
- Pike linemen Austin Lewis, Easton Tuggle, Winston Smith, Caleb Satterfield, Keith Taylor and Randy Gosnell depart in late January for a three-month assignment in Puerto Rico.
- Other photos show the scope of work for crews working to restore power in Puerto Rico.