Three from Corps Vicksburg District part of team working to restore power in Puerto Rico

Published 5:22 pm Sunday, December 17, 2017

David Jenkins, Viviana Berrios Williamson and Jonathan Pennington have been involved with making a miracle.

The three U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District employees have been part of the ongoing restoration of power in Puerto Rico, and they are only a few of the Corps employees from several districts who volunteered to go the island and help its recovery after Hurricane Maria.

“Our mission was to get the whole island up. This was a mission we never had with Army Corps of Engineers,” said Jenkins, the deputy chief of the operations division for the Vicksburg District and a program manager for power restoration.

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“We talk about power … We do temporary power all the time we use FEMA’s (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) generators and we install those.”

“We do not do grid restoration; that’s the first time we’ve ever done that,” added Pennington, assistant team leader for the grid restoration. Pennington, who also worked with Hurricane Irma relief in Florida, was in Puerto Rico when Maria hit.

“There was a group of about 25 of us from the Corps (in Puerto Rico) going through the storm. It was interesting when we were going through it, but we weren’t scared. We were in a hotel that was not only structurally sound, but the management did a very good job handling the situation,” he said.

The most challenging part, he said, came after the storm, when there was concern if fuel trucks were going to get to the generators to refill them, and communications with the U.S.

“It was kind of miraculous I was able to get ahold of my wife and my dad the day of (the storm), but I couldn’t get ahold of the people I needed,” he said.

Jenkins and Williamson, the district’s Mississippi River channel improvement coordinator program manager who was a program manager for logistics and a native of Puerto Rico, came several days later.

Williamson said she was concerned for her family living in the central part of the island, which is very rural.

“I couldn’t speak to my brothers for a month. It took them a month to get service for me to speak to them and know they were OK and that they had everything they needed,” she said. “We knew the city had gas and water and power but you always want to make sure they have food and water.”

Her family, she said, spent 83 days without power.

When Jenkins and Williamson arrived in Puerto Rico, Jenkins said, “It was very chaotic; not a lot of organization. There were a lot of people wanting to do good things, just trying to get traction of what things were like.” And the situation made getting damage assessments for repairs difficult, Jenkins said.

The Corps team set up it headquarters in the parking lot of the Puerto Rican Power Authority, the government-run utility.

“The whole power restoration project mission was the big coordination within the Corps and PREPA. They were doing work and we were doing work in coordination,” Williamson said.

“The restoration effort was actually led by them. They set up the priorities; they knew their system, and we were supporting them with our contracted crews but also materials.

“There were daily meetings on priorities and we had a lot of communication. Meetings were the story of our lives. It was what we did all the time,” Pennington said.

“We worked under the program director for the power restoration,” Williamson said. “We were the program team under him. We divided our tasks. David was in charge of the contracts. I was a program manager for the logistics. Jonathan was liaison between power restoration and FEMA.”

Because FEMA designated the situation in Puerto Rico a Level 1 event, Pennington acted as liaison between FEMA and the other agencies.

“That meant all the coordination had to happen at headquarters in Washington, D.C. That’s very frustrating when you’re down there on the island and you want to coordinate yourself. All decisions happened at national response coordination center. We tried to emphasize the priorities we had. Early on, our generators were not being prioritized because hospital supplies, food and water, life/safety (took top priority).”

Other challenges included logistics, getting crews and equipment to Puerto Rico, and coordinating and prioritizing activities not only in Puerto Rico but also the American Virgin Islands, which were also hit by Maria.

A major problem was getting materials, Jenkins said.

“We were getting people, but we needed materials. They estimated there were 60,000 poles damaged or destroyed, and we needed to get bucket trucks.”

Also, he said, 80 percent of the island’s 2,400 miles of transmission lines were damaged and there was an additional 30,000 miles of distribution lines that needed to be assessed.

Williamson said PREPA has enough equipment and materials available for maintenance and repairs.

“They were not prepared to restore the grid on the entire island. At the beginning, we used the materials they had available.”

Equipment, materials and crews were brought in by the Navy and other organizations.

“This was a multi-agency project,” Williamson said.

“To further complicate matters, we had authority questions of do we repair it, or do we get it back exactly the way it was?” Jenkins said. “We had a lot of conversations and legal teams looking at what our authority was (for) repairing.

“We can put on a blue roof, a temporary roof, but there’s no temporary poles, there’s no temporary wire. There were a lot of the different components that went into making the grid that were in bad shape prior to the storm, so what was our authority to replace those and repair the substations.”

And transmission line rights of way needed to be located.

Unlike the U.S., where power transmission line rights of way are clear, Pennington said, rights of way for lines in Puerto Rico many times had to be cut out of the undergrowth.

“The grown vegetation made it difficult to get (to) the transmission lines to get crews in there to restore transmission lines,” he said. “They don’t have the maintenance that we have here in the states.”

Things are slowly improving on the island.

Presently, Williamson said, the system has reached 60.4 percent of its generating capacity, and 16,000 utility poles have delivered with another 32,000 expected to be delivered by Jan. 17.

She said she has managed to contact her family and stays in contact with the team from Vicksburg that has replaced her, Jenkins and Pennington.

“It was good to be a part of that,” Jenkins said.

“We played a role in it, but it was much greater than any one person or group of people because there were so many people working very hard and every passionately to get it done.

“I think the last thing we did was layout the plan to FEMA of how we were going to find and execute the mission by March 19, 2018. We just did as far as March 19, because that’s how far our mission was signed for.”

“I was quite impressed with all the very smart people we have in the organization coming up with a lot of models and putting science into how we’re going to do this,” Pennington said.

“I would love to go back,” Williamson said. “I’m very proud to have been a part.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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