Photo used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user sjrankin.
The eye of Hurricane Maria covered the entire island of Puerto Rico, destroying the electrical infrastructure. Repair is underway, but residents have been told it will take up to six months to restore power everywhere.  

Nearly two dozen IBEW wiremen and linemen are on their way to begin rebuilding Puerto Rico’s shattered electrical grid. Fifteen are going from New York Local 3 and 15 are going from Miami, Tampa, Atlanta and other locals.

Before communication was cut off with the U.S. Air Force and Navy communications contractors, all IBEW members in Puerto Rico were reported safe though nearly the entire island is in perpetual blackout.

They will join approximately 19 members of Cocoa Beach, Fla., Local 2088, island residents who survived the devastation of Hurricane Maria after landfall on Sept. 20.

The hurricane shattered Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, cutting supplies of electricity, water, gas and food to the nearly 3.5 million U.S. citizens there. The aging electrical grid and powerhouses were so damaged, officials from the bankrupt, state-owned utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said, parts of the island will not have electrical service for four to six months. 

Volunteers on the Way

On Sept. 28, at the meeting of the Santiago Iglesias Educational Society, a club within Local 3 for Latino members and their supporters, Business Representative Benny Arana began collecting names of people ready to volunteer to go to Puerto Rico. More than 60 people signed up that night. In the days that have followed, 40 more called in.

The IBEW was asked to provide 15 journeymen for a flight donated by United Airlines for Oct. 4. Along with the volunteers from the trades, the flight will carry doctors, nurses and other recovery and rebuilding specialists. The trades workers have all volunteered for at least two weeks of service.

The next group of volunteers is being organized out of the Fifth District, said International Executive Council member and Miami Local 349 Business Manager Bill Riley. Fifteen more beds opened up for electricians and they will be filled out of Miami, Atlanta, Tampa and a few others across the country. They will go down Oct. 6.

“This won’t be the only trip. We won’t fix Puerto Rico in two weeks or even two months,” he said.

Louis Alvarez, Local 3 shop steward and member of the executive board, will lead the New York volunteers once the plane touches down in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico.

“He will be in charge of all the electricians and distributing the work once they get on the ground,” Arana said. “We don’t know right now if it is utility or water treatment. We’ll find out when we get there. Whatever they need, though, we know we can do the work.”

Aid and manpower is arriving in Puerto Rico, but much is trapped in the port by a lack of fuel, truck drivers and passable roads. IBEW members are prepared to rebuild, but only if they, their tools and their equipment can get there. Photo used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of the New York National Guard.

Arana said 12 of the 15 are fluent Spanish speakers and many of them have connections to Puerto Rico, but people of all backgrounds volunteered to go, said Local 3 business manager and IEC Chairman Christopher Erikson.

“We have an Italian last name, an Irish last name and a Filipino last name on this list,” Erikson said. “This is about a lot more than where you or your family came from. We can help people, so we do. This Brotherhood and organized labor have always been generous with our community.”

Moving from an emergency volunteer response to long-term rebuilding is the ultimate goal, said Fifth District International Vice President Joe Davis and he expects that many members of Orlando Local 222 and Miami Local 349 will be working on the island as contracts are signed.

“The IBEW and our signatory contractors have the resources to rebuild Puerto Rico better and stronger than it was before the hurricane,” Davis said. “I’ve worked there. The IBEW has worked there and throughout the Caribbean. We are ready to do whatever we can to help.”

The challenge, Davis said, was both in how badly the island was damaged and a lack of coordination between local authorities and the federal government.

The Port of San Juan reopened days after the hurricane passed, but shortages of gas and washed out roads mean very little of what is getting into the port is getting out, according to news reports.

“We can get ourselves down there with the equipment we need but getting it out of the port is still a huge problem,” Davis said. “This flight is a good start and we are working with our NECA partners now to get things moving faster.”

Difficult logistics can be overcome, Davis said, but the one hurdle that cannot be avoided is that no one yet knows how contractors will be paid. Both the Puerto Rican government and PREPA are bankrupt.

“I don’t know if it will be Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or someone else entirely, but our contractors need to know they will get paid,” Davis said. “I know our country has the resources and we have the men and women who know how to help. I hope they don’t take too long figuring this out.”

Surviving the Storm

The Local 2088 members maintain three radio communication facilities on the island for the U.S. military. Two groups work for Delta Solutions & Strategies and operate and maintain the U.S. Air Force’s High Frequency Global Communications System facilities at Isabella and Salinas.

The third group works for Rome Research and runs the U.S. Navy’s low-frequency communication station in Aguada.

The three groups include electrical and communication technicians and antenna rigging specialists.

Local 2088 Business Manager Shawn Beal said officials from both companies had been in contact with their workers.

“A company president from Delta did hear from the site lead using a U.S. Coast Guard HAM radio and reported all were alive and well,” Beal said. “Unfortunately, the Coast Guard pulled that unit out and we have had no way to communicate since.”

The Air Force facilities are part of a worldwide network of high-power transmission facilities that issue high-frequency command and control transmissions to military aircraft and ships. The naval station uses low frequency signals that can penetrate water to communicate with submarines when they are underway below the surface.

For decades, the IBEW had more than 200 members working military jobs in Puerto Rico, Davis, until the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station was closed in 2004.

Before the hurricane, Davis said that he knew of only a handful of IBEW members on the island doing work for contractors or PREPA, but not under IBEW negotiated contracts. Davis said he has not heard about their status.