Ten members of Jersey City, N.J., Local 164 recently answered a special job call that transported them on a 1,700-mile journey south.
|Jersey City, N.J., Local 164 members Matthew Curatola, left, and Shawn Mathews signed and stickered their local’s rewiring handiwork at a National Guard facility in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The National Guard in the Virgin Islands needed people to help them turn one of its dorms into a temporary COVID-19 hospital, said Local 164 Business Manager Daniel Gumble. “Like a lot of places, they wanted to make sure they had enough hospital beds to handle a possible coronavirus outbreak.”
The New Jersey-Virgin Islands connection came courtesy of Huen Electric, an IBEW signatory contractor that had been tasked with turning a gymnasium at the Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus into a temporary COVID-19 treatment facility. Huen also had been tapped to take on similar work at a National Guard facility on St. Croix, the largest of the three main islands that make up the southeastern-most U.S. outpost.
“Huen asked if they could take some of the folks out of our hall and we cleared it with the appropriate jurisdictions,” said Local 164 President Thomas Sullivan.
Along with its companion territory Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands fall under the purview of the IBEW’s Fifth District.
Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in February, the number of cases within the Virgin Islands has remained relatively and fortunately low. Of approximately 106,000 residents, there had been more than 400 confirmed novel coronavirus cases by early August, and eight deaths were attributed to it.
New Jersey, sadly, has much more experience dealing with COVID-19. Over the same time period, the Garden State has recorded more than 184,000 COVID-19 cases, the sixth-highest number in the U.S., with the second-highest number of deaths caused by the disease, behind only its neighbor, New York.
But though the Virgin Islands’ government had seen a measure of success in keeping COVID-19 from spreading, it wasn’t about to take any chances. Watching the virus spread rapidly across much of the rest of the U.S., the territorial health department reached out to its local National Guard unit for help locating facilities that could be converted into emergency hospitals should a more serious outbreak occur.
The Guard determined that one of its buildings, a barracks at the 210th Regional Training Institute on its Estate Bethlehem compound, was an ideal facility that could be quickly turned into an alternate care facility specifically capable of treating COVID-19 patients.
“The building was really screwed up when we got there, though,” said Matthew Curatola, one of the 10 journeyman inside wiremen from Local 164 who were flown to St. Croix on April 25.
Given a two-week deadline, the crew — which also included members from New Brunswick, N.J., Local 456 and Miami Local 359 — worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to quickly convert the barracks into a treatment facility capable of meeting residents’ potential COVID-19 needs.
“Every workday started at 7,” Curatola said. Arriving at the job site, Guard personnel took the workers’ body temperatures using a contactless laser thermometer, and they supplied the electricians with protective face masks and hand sanitizer. “We would also wash our hands constantly,” he said.
The crew installed new lighting and outlets in the building as well as hospital-specific items such as a nurse’s call center and a negative pressure room, a chamber where a machine brings in fresh air and then filters out contaminants before pumping the air back outside, thus helping to prevent airborne disease viruses from spreading.
“Of course, we had to keep our masks on at all times, and that was tough because the heat there felt extreme,” Curatola said. Although the tropical breezes keep the islands’ outdoor areas comfortable, the average high temperature on St. Croix hovers in the upper 80s to low 90s year-round.
“Probably the biggest challenge was getting material,” he said, with the closest U.S. mainland point in Florida about a 1,200-mile airplane ride away. “You could order things, but it took a while for it to get there.”
It wasn’t hard for the wiremen to drive out for an occasional small-supply run, though, considering St. Croix is 22 miles long and 7 miles across at its widest point. Typically, they could get what they needed from the island’s nearby — and only — Home Depot.
But sometimes, their supplies would arrive on a massive military cargo airplane. “It was pretty cool seeing a C-130 come in with all of our material,” Curatola said.
With tourism on the Virgin Islands practically nonexistent on account of COVID-19, the Guard was able to put the Local 164 members up at one of the island’s mostly vacant resorts. In their downtime, the crew managed to get out and explore their temporary neighborhood.
“The Army Corps people said, ‘We’re so happy you guys are here,’” Curatola said. “Or, you’d be in the local deli or gas station and tell people what you were there for, and they would say ‘thank you.’”
Also on the job from Local 164 were Edwin Espinal, Mike Grey, Jack Hetherington, Robert Lambert, Dave Mallet, Anthony Matesic, Shawn Mathews, Dave McCluney, Mike Schmidt, Scott White and Jim Zelenka.
Despite the plush accommodations and the island’s renowned natural beauty, the trip was anything but a vacation, Curatola said. Working 12-hour days helped the workers get a good handle on the job from the start. They finished by the May 5 deadline and got safely home to their families with thanks from grateful islanders for a job well done.