Engineers Soleny Gonzalez and Diana Rivera are among the Gulf Power employees who spent days waiting in anguish to find out if their families survived Hurricane Maria after it devastated the island of Puerto Rico.

Now that they’ve learned their families survived the storm, they’re turning their focus on helping their families and communities get the help they need to survive the aftermath. In the face of widespread devastation to the infrastructure, logistical challenges hampering the delivery of life-saving and life-sustaining supplies and a lack of basic services, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Puerto Rico.

“People are asking me how they can help,” Rivera said. “I’m encouraging them to donate locally through nonprofits that will ship supplies to Puerto Rico,” she said.

Gonzalez is doing the same by distributing a list of Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief drop-off locations in Northwest Florida and urging people to donate at least $1 to the American Red Cross.

Gulf Power is also encouraging its employees to get involved and donate to the American Red Cross. Donations Gulf Power employees make to the American Red Cross will be matched by Southern Company Charitable Foundation to help those Affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

“In times like these our employees are eager to step up,” said Stan Connally, Chairman, President and CEO of Gulf Power. “Many of them remember the challenges our community faced in the long road to recovery after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Giving back is one of the most important things we can do.”

Desperate times

When Gonzalez’s parents, Leticia Roman and Milton Gonzalez, contacted her four days after Maria made landfall on the Caribbean Island with 140 mph winds, she was so happy to finally get that phone call she so desperately prayed for.

During happier times, Soleny Gonzalez is pictured with her sister Yara and mother Leticia to her left, and her dad Milton to her right at a restaurant in San Juan, Puerto Rico in Christmas of 2016.

“It was such a relief to hear their voices,” said Gonzalez, one of five engineers Southern Company recruited from the University of Puerto Rico to work at Gulf Power. “They are OK. They drove 45 minutes from Arecibo to the metro area of Dorado searching for a cell phone signal and found one bar.”

It was also heartbreaking, she said, to hear her parents describe a scene of devastation and chaos.“Dirt is everywhere from the river flooding. The situation now is to find gas,

“Dirt is everywhere from the river flooding. The situation now is to find gas, water and food,” said Gonzalez who works in Distribution in the Milton office. “They waited six hours on Monday to buy $10 worth of gasoline. My mother went to the bank on Tuesday to try and get some cash. It was chaos. She went back at 6 a.m. on Wednesday and was able to get a small amount. That’s all they are letting people have. The computer system is down, so they are keeping records on paper.”

So far, in Arecibo, on the north coast of the island, no outside relief efforts are visible. With major damage to the telecommunications system and energy grid, her family has little information on where to get help.

Gonzalez tried unsuccessfully to direct her parents by phone to a makeshift relief site with water set up by local officials, which she heard about on the news. When her parents arrived, the supplies were gone and they were directed to other sites, where they again found nothing.

Rivera, an Engineer in Distribution in the Pine Forest Office, learned through various sources that her immediate and extended family members survived the hurricane and, for the moment, are living off the supplies they stocked up on in preparation for Maria.

With her family describing the situation in Utuado, her hometown in the central-western side of the island, as “desperate,” she’s worried about what they may face in upcoming days and weeks.

“My town is surrounded by mountains and three of our bridges got washed away and a lot of our streets are washed away,” she said. “All the leaves are blown off the trees and vegetation is brown. It flooded in areas that have never flooded before. Food and water supplies are low because the town is far away from San Juan, where all the relief is.”

Rivera’s brother, Gabriel Rivera, is the only relative she knows of so far who has lost their home. “He said it’s a bad situation, but he’s happy to be alive,” Rivera said. “He’s a lineman for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, so he knows he’ll have plenty of work rebuilding the grid.”

Support

Along with the five engineers, there are several other employees from Puerto Rico with family ties to the island. Gonzalez and Rivera say they and the other Gulf Power Puerto Ricans want to find a way to return home, and armed with their energy company skills, they want to help with the restoration of the power grid that was wiped out.

Diana Rivera was surrounded by her family in January when she married Herman Diaz in Puerto Rico. Because the telecommunications system was wiped out by Hurricane Maria, she still has not spoken to her mother, pictured to her right.

“We want to be part of the power restoration because we know the island, the people and the language,” Rivera said. “We have to wait to see. First the situation there has to get stable — food, water and safety.”

Adrianne Collins, Vice President of Power Delivery said transmission/generation damage assessment personnel from the New York Power Authority are continuing to assess the widespread impacts to the island’s energy infrastructure.

“These assessments will be critical for identifying what resources will be needed for the initial repairs to the grid,” she said. “As these needs are identified, the industry stands ready to assist the short-term and long-term recovery process in Puerto Rico. That said, initial assessments show significant damage to both the transmission and distribution systems.”

In the meantime, as they deal with being away from their families during these difficult times, they’ve been supporting each other through the Gulf Power Hispanic Network, which Gonzalez helped create, and by networking with Puerto Ricans throughout Southern Company and Northwest Florida.

“A lot of us are in the same boat. We’re all sharing information and making sure everyone is OK.  Everyone I work with is asking me every day how can they help,” Gonzalez said. “We do appreciate the support.”