A powerful experience: Northwest Wisconsin linemen enlightened by assisting Puerto Rico relief efforts

posted April 16, 2018 8:33 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Editor | ​heidi.clausen@ecpc.com

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    Xcel Energy linemen enjoyed a spectacular view as they ate lunch on top of an abandoned house.
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    Linemen navigated jungles and steep terrain to string electrical wire to homes in rural Puerto Rico.
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    Electrical lines ran down a mountain side to homes below.
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    A Cat was enlisted to help uncover electrical wires buried in bamboo since the hurricane last fall.
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    Bergmann, front and center in white T-shirt, spearheaded a small crew of Xcel linemen as they restored electrical service to a hard-hit area of rural Puerto Rico this winter.
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    Drivers of large electrical trucks brought in by barge had their work cut out for them going through the narrow mountain passes.
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    Linemen navigated jungles and steep terrain to string electrical wire to homes in rural Puerto Rico.
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    Todd Bergmann
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    While most buildings survived the storms unscathed, roofs sustained heavy damage.

CLAYTON — In the months after hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico, Todd Bergmann often heard news reports about the painfully slow recovery process there. Most concerning to Bergmann, a rural Clayton resident and line crew foreman for Xcel Energy, was how long it was taking for electrical power to be restored.

“I wondered how come it’s taking so long; people are struggling,” he said.

But after working for three weeks in the jungles of Puerto Rico this winter, Bergmann now knows why. Rebuilding power lines on the island was one of the most rewarding yet frustrating experiences of his life, he said.

“It’s rewarding to turn the power on but frustrating,” he said. “After you’ve been there, you realize why it took so long. ... Power lines weren’t in the best condition to start with, and they were short on people, too.”

More than six months after the hurricane blew through Puerto Rico, whose economy relies heavily on tourism, thousands of people are still without power and tourist traffic has yet to bounce back.

Bergmann and his crew restored power to about 500 people, including some who hadn’t had electricity since before the storms.

“They were really happy. They were so excited to see us,” he said. “That’s what made it worth it.”

Expectations are that power should be completely restored to most people in the area by the end of May, he said, but some of the poorer families will never have it. Puerto Rico gets slammed by a major disaster about every 10 years, he said.

Bergmann volunteered as part of a group of about 18 Upper Midwest Xcel employees who left in late-January and returned home in mid-February. The company also dispatched workers from the Texas and Colorado areas, for a total of about 70 Xcel workers during that time. About 250 linemen from various U.S. utilities appeared there during that same term. Xcel expects to send more crews until May, Bergmann said.

While Xcel crews routinely assist in the aftermath of severe storms on the U.S. mainland, this was a rare opportunity to leave the country for relief work, he said.

Usually, they drive their trucks to work sites such as Texas and Florida, mobilizing quickly to get as many as 10,000 responding linemen on-site within a few days, he said. However, with Puerto Rico as the destination, they had to fly, and each lineman brought 100 to 150 pounds of gear, including tools and personal items.

“Airplanes aren’t set up to have that many people bringing that much excess baggage,” Bergmann said, “so some of it came later on other planes.”

Work trucks, along with diggers and bucket trucks, were driven to Baton Rouge, La., and loaded onto a barge for shipment to the island. But before arrangements could be made to land the barge in Puerto Rico, hurricane damage at the port had to be remedied.

While in Puerto Rico, Bergmann and the approximately 10-man crew he oversaw worked every day from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Initial staging was at Caguas, and they were driven by school bus into the remote jungles south of Cayey, where the eye of Hurricane Maria blew ashore.

Months later, the damage is still evident in the city, he said, and the stoplights still don’t work. Most buildings there were built from concrete and can withstand strong storms, he said, but roofs are in rough shape and many windows are still missing.

“It was bad,” Bergmann said.

His crew worked primarily in the rural areas surrounding the city on a line that fed water pumps supplying households in the mountains. Although most people have generators, they’re expensive to run and not a good long-term option in poverty-stricken areas, he said.

“Some had burned upwards of $3,000 of fuel running their generators,” he said, and that’s money they can ill afford to spend.

An uphill climb

Complicating relief efforts was the lack of maps and the wild and rugged terrain — much different from the metropolitan areas of Miami, Tampa Bay and Houston crews were used to working in, he said.

“Everything was steep,” he said, and driving large trucks up and down the narrow mountain passes was treacherous. “By the end of three weeks, we all were driving just like the locals.”

Bergmann said they hung some spans of wire that ran 1,200 to 1,500 feet across between poles, walking the wire down 800-foot-deep ravines and up the other side to connect it. In particularly steep areas, they tied ropes to trees to help pull themselves up. Some crews used drones to string wire, he said, and that would’ve saved them a lot of time and hassle.

Weather wasn’t always on their side: Although it was 80 degrees and sunny for several days, he said, there were days in which it rained two or three times, so the hard clay never really dried out and became very slippery. But they continued to work through the showers.

“We didn’t miss a beat,” he said.

They had to protect themselves against various dangerous insects, especially African honeybees.

“They were terrible for two days,” he said, “but I never saw a mosquito.”

Working at 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level took some getting used to, he said, but more irritating was the chore of locating existing power lines that had fallen last fall and become buried in a tangle of vines.

“I spent most of my time trying to find the line so we could work on it,” he said. “It had grown so deep, we couldn’t see anything. We were kicking in the weeds to find stuff.”

With wind speeds as high as 150 mph during the storm, some transformers also had been blown away from poles.

“We usually don’t see that,” he said.

In some cases, they had to install all-new materials, but that work was delayed by late-arriving supplies such as poles and transformers. When appropriate, they stripped supplies from abandoned houses to use in occupied homes.

“We struggled for materials for a while,” he said. “For 10 days, we didn’t turn anybody on because we were waiting for wire, but we kept going past there until we had wire.”

Language was a barrier at times, as most people there speak Spanish, Bergmann said, but residents were clearly thrilled to have power restored. They often brought the workers snacks and lunch to thank them.

“They were really generous,” Bergmann said.

Turning the power back on for one small rural school was particularly gratifying, he said. The teacher and students surprised one lineman, whose birthday was that day, with a cupcake and a song.

Toward the end of their time in Puerto Rico, Bergmann said, they were rewarded with a mountaintop view overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as they worked.

“The views and people were outstanding. It made it worth every day getting up,” he said.

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