Ameren Employee Recalls Puerto Rico Devastation | WGLT

Ameren Employee Recalls Puerto Rico Devastation

May 1, 2018

Despite a massive rebuilding effort that included three waves of Ameren Illinois workers, Puerto Rico is still experiencing setbacks to the restoration of electricity for homes and businesses.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria last September destroyed the island's electrical grid.

An Ameren Illinois crew taking a break from connecting electricity to businesses and homes in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
Credit Ameren Illinios

Last week an excavator operated by a subcontractor caused an islandwide blackout for up to 36 hours in some places. A week prior, that same subcontractor caused a temporary outage for nearly 900,000 residents when a tree fell on a power line.

Before those setbacks, an estimated 97 percent of Puerto Rican homes and businesses had their power restored.

Eric Eskra of Lincoln was a supervisor of two 4-man crews during the third wave of Ameren employees that helped reconnect power on the island. He said Ameren prepared him and his crew well for the work, but laughed slightly recalling how he hadn’t realized Puerto Rico is quite mountainous.

“The funny thing is, when we landed, they took us on a charter bus to the hotel and basically dropped us off on the road. We had to walk up to the hotel probably … a couple hundred yards, but it was straight uphill. We were dragging our bags and everything up there with us and I was thinking, ‘What did I sign up for?’ I can’t get over the terrain,” said a still impressed Eskra.

Eskra was one of 225 Ameren workers who were part of the larger group of more than 3,000 power-restoration workers coordinated by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), an electric industry association.

He said the third wave he was part of essentially followed up what the first two waves had already accomplished.

“As soon as we started ascending up what we called Hill Mountain, from sea level it went up to about 13 kilometers,” said Eskra. “The first two waves before us were putting up the main three phase feeders, and then we were working on a lot of the taps. It was unbelievable the amount the first two (waves) accomplished, and then the third wave too. And we did it safely.”

He said his crew was working in a rainforest in what he was told had been the eye of Hurricane Maria. He said the devastation was “unbelievable” even nearly seven months after the storm had ravaged the island, as was reaction from residents who had been without power the entire time.

“Ninety-nine percent of our interactions with locals were great. They were unbelievable for being out seven months,” said Eskra.

He estimates 95 percent of Puerto Rican homes and businesses had power by the time he arrived back in Illinois in early April. Eskra said the higher they worked up the mountain, the more difficult conditions became to connect electricity. And at higher elevations, tough decisions needed to be made.

“As our deployment started dwindling, we had to make decisions on who realistically we were going to be able to get back with power,” said Eskra. “Homes that had been vacated for several months … we had to make decisions to press on to other customers we could (help).”

One incident is difficult to forget.

“One resident refused to let us run wire through his property, which would connect to another half dozen to a dozen customers. The gentleman was probably in his mid-60s. The day we got there we were expecting to get those people on, and after that hiccup we realized it wasn’t going to happen. The look he had in his eyes I had never seen. It was pure desperation. I’ll never forget it,” said Eskra.

But he emphasized the experience overall was extremely positive. He even made friends with families in some homes he helped to re-connect electricity. 

“I had at least three separate households invite me and my family back there whenever we want. And they wanted us to say in their house, not in a hotel. I truly believe I could call them in a year and go down there and they would invite you in to stay," he said.

He said he and his wife are seriously considering the proposal.

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