BARCELONETA, Puerto Rico — Electrical linemen descend from helicopters, balancing on steel girders 90 feet high on transmission towers in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, far from any road. At the same time, crews fan out across the battered island, erecting light poles and power lines in a block by block slog.
A month after Hurricane Maria rolled across the center of Puerto Rico, the power is still out for the vast majority of people on the island as the work to restore hundreds of miles of transmission lines and thousands of miles of distribution lines grinds on for crews toiling under a blazing tropical sun.
And it won’t get done soon without more workers, more equipment and more money, according to everyone involved in the effort.
“It’s too much for us alone,” Nelson Velez, a regional director for the Puerto Rican power authority, said as he supervised crews working along a busy street in Isla Verde, just east of San Juan, on a recent afternoon. “We have just so many, so many areas affected.”
The office of Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Thursday that about 20 percent of the island has service and he has pledged to get that to 95 percent by Dec. 31. For now, though, most of the island’s 3.4 million people suffer without air conditioning or basic necessities. Many have resorted to using washboards, now frequently seen for sale along the side of the road, to clean clothes, and sleeping on their balconies and flocking to any open restaurants for relief from daytime temperatures above 90 degrees.
“I thought we would we have power in the metro area by now,” said Pablo Martinez, an air conditioning technician, shaking his head in frustration.
Hurricane Maria, which caused at least 49 deaths on the island, made landfall on the southeastern coast near Yabucoa as a Category 4 storm, with maximum sustained winds of about 154 mph. It passed out of the territory about 12 hours later near Barceloneta in the north, still with sustained winds of about 115 mph. The onslaught was sufficient to knock down hundreds of transmission towers and thousands of distribution poles and lines.
The storm’s path was ideal for taking down the entire grid. Most of Puerto Rico’s generating capacity is along the southern coast, and most consumption is in the north around San Juan, with steel and aluminum transmission towers up to 90 feet tall running through the mountains in the middle. At least 10 towers fell along the most important transmission line that runs to the capital, entangling it with a secondary one that runs parallel and that lost about two dozen towers in a hard-to-reach area in the center of the island.
“It reminds me of a fireball that just burned everything in its path,” said Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers unit working to clear debris and restore the grid, with nearly 400 troops on the ground.
The storm also struck at a terrible time. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority filed for bankruptcy in July. It has put off badly needed maintenance and had just finished dealing with outages from Hurricane Irma in early September.
“You stop doing your typical deferred maintenance, and so you become even that much more susceptible to a storm like Maria and Irma coming and blowing down your towers, water coming up in your substations and flooding them,” said Tom Lewis, president of the U.S. division of Louis Berger, which has been supplying generators in Puerto Rico to clients that include the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Everything becomes that much more sensitive to any kind of damage whether it be from wind or water.”
PREPA Director Ricardo Ramos said the authority is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and contractors to bring in more “bucket trucks” and other equipment. It already has about 400 three- to five-member repair crews and is trying to reach 1,000 within three weeks with workers brought in from the U.S. “With this number of brigades we will be able to advance much more rapidly,” Ramos assured reporters during a recent news conference.
PREPA brought in a Montana company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, to help its crews restore the transmission and distribution lines across the island. It has a rolling contract and can bill up to $300 million for its work, said Odalys de Jesus, a spokeswoman for the power authority.
It is a huge job for a young company, formed in 2015. Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski said previous work restoring transmission lines damaged by wildfires in the western U.S. has prepared them for the Puerto Rico contract. “We don’t like easy,” he said during a break at one of the company’s base camps near Barceloneta.
The camp buzzes with activity as helicopters come and go, taking linemen and equipment to the mountain towers, the pilots deftly navigating the lines and mountains to lower men and equipment to the steel-and-aluminum girds high above the trees. Whitefish had about 270 employees in Puerto Rico as of midweek, working both on transmission and distribution. It expects the number to double in the coming weeks if it can find sufficient lodging and transport to the island.
Other contractors working in Puerto Rico include Fluor Corp., which was awarded a $336.2 million contract from the Army Corps of Engineers for debris removal and power restoration, and Weston Solutions, which is providing two generators to stabilize power in the capital for $35 million.
Their efforts are to restore the system that was in place before the storm, not to build a better one, at least not yet. Gov. Rossello says the island needs to overhaul its power grid, make it less vulnerable and look at alternative sources. He welcomed a proposal by Elon Musk, CEO of electric-car company Tesla, to expand solar energy and has raised the issue of longer-term improvements with Washington.
House Speaker Paul Ryan seemed to express at least a willingness to consider helping Puerto Rico build back better when he visited the island this month. “If you going to put up a power line let’s put up a power line that can withstand hurricane-force winds,” he said. “It makes no sense to put temporary patches on problems that have long term effects.”
Techmanski said Whitefish was making progress on the line that carries about 230,000 volts to San Juan from the Aguirre power plant in the south, which will vastly increase the amount of power reaching the capital.
“We’re getting it done,” he said. But, asked about the goal of getting 95 percent of power back by the end of the year, he wasn’t sure: “It is very optimistic at this point.”