Photo credit: Matt Lord/Chicago IBEW Local 9
IBEW linemen working for Haugland Energy make repairs along the Caribbean shore in St. Croix. 

As cruise ships began to return to St. Croix last November, tourists seemed surprised to see so many work crews busy on the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Everyone knows what the hurricanes did to Puerto Rico, but they don’t know how hard they hit here,” journeyman lineman JD Griffith said in mid-January, talking by cell phone from an island cemetery where he was running new power lines to a church.

David "JD" Griffith of Hartford, Conn., Local, 42, acting steward for IBEW members working for Haugland Energy on St. Croix, works with brothers Kyle Tyrrell, Dan Million and Sean Matthews.

Just hours before Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, its Category 5 force laid waste to St. Croix. Neighboring islands St. Thomas and St. John were in ruins already, battered less than two weeks earlier by Hurricane Irma’s 175-mph winds.

Power lines, trees, roofs, glass, cars, appliances, furniture and every other bit of imaginable debris was strewn everywhere. Travel was treacherous, especially in the pitch-black when the sun went down.

“There was so much carnage here the first month,” Griffith said. “I’d never seen devastation like it. Every pole is new here now. Picture where you live and every pole is on the ground. Where do you even start?”

Griffith, a steward at Hartford, Conn., IBEW Local 42 and acting steward for more than 450 IBEW members working for Haugland Energy on St. Croix, arrived on the island in early October. In the months since, he said crews have “completely rebuilt the whole infrastructure. We’ve set tens of thousands of poles, we’ve run hundreds of miles of wire.”

St. Thomas and St. John have been similarly revived thanks to IBEW crews, who, like Griffith, were stunned by what they saw at first. 

Brian Adams, a Western Area Power Administration line foreman, arrived on St. Thomas within days of Maria’s wrath, with six other members of Vacaville, Calif., IBEW Local 1245. Interviewed by his local for a story on its website, he said he worked on restoration after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York and New Jersey in 2012, but “this was completely different. When we got to St. Thomas, there was nothing — no power at all anywhere throughout the island. The amount of work that was needed just to get their basic infrastructure –  water desalination facilities, hospitals, that kind of stuff – back up, it was amazing to me.”

Overcoming those obstacles and many more, IBEW members had restored power to at least 90 percent of residents on the three islands by mid-January. “We’re finishing up, getting more or less to the last customers, getting them hooked up,” Eric Jack, a BBC Electrical superintendent and member of Topeka, Kan., Local 304, said Jan. 18 while working on St. Thomas.

Crews were also “hardening the grid,” reinforcing the power infrastructure supporting hospitals, fires stations, grocery stores and other vital service so that more of it survives the next big storm, said Donnie St. John, business representative for Orlando, Fla., IBEW Local 222.

An IBEW crew on St. Croix equipped a young friend and future lineman Francisco,
10, with a vest and hard hat.

While they hail from virtually every state, all IBEW members working under contract in the Virgin Islands are represented by Local 222, which set up a temporary office in the capital, Charlotte Amalie.

St. John, who’s run the office since early January, said he can’t get over the kindness and generosity of people who were living in poverty even before the storms.

“I’ve never, ever worked for customers that treat us the way these people treat us,” he said. “They say that angels brought these men to their island. They would be happy even if they had nothing, and what little they have to give away, they give you without batting an eye. Your heart just melts helping them.”

Griffith had been on the island for 101 days as of Jan. 18, not counting a 10-day trip home to Connecticut for the holidays, briefly trading sweltering heat and high humidity for 14 inches of snow and below-zero temperatures.

While he may go to Puerto Rico from St. Croix for more restoration work, he’s committed to head home for good by March 31. “We work every day, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Every day is Groundhog Day,” he said with a laugh.

His home on the island has been a Carnival cruise ship rented by FEMA, housing most of the 450 IBEW members on St. Croix. Once the island reopened to tourists, their ship had to pull out of port most days to make room for boatloads of vacationers. “No stragglers,” he said. “We have to off by 6:30 in the morning and can’t return until 6:30 p.m.”

While they could eat all they wanted for free on board, and took lunch to go, Griffith said he and many of his IBEW brothers began to favor fresh, local island food and were happy to support the restaurants and stores that began to reopen as restoration progressed.

Like St. John, Griffith was overwhelmed by the warmth and values of the islanders.“They’re happy that they woke up this morning and that they’re with their families,” he said. “They have nothing, and they say, ‘Come in, come in.’ They cook for you, they catch tuna and make you dinner, they give you beer. They’re just so grateful you’re there.”

He said he has “videos of children chasing us, screaming with joy – loving, loving, loving us. The memories I have will be in in the back of my brain for the rest of my life.”

One especially eager and curious 10-year-old boy befriended Griffith’s crew, who equipped him with a vest and hard hat. “He keeps telling me, ‘I want to be a lineman, JD, I want to be a lineman.’”