It’s been five months since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico and wiped out power to millions of residents in September of 2017.
At the time, Gulf Power’s Puerto Rican employees could not rush home to help, so they mobilized their coworkers and friends to support relief efforts to provide supplies and money for Maria’s victims.
“Shocked by what happened to Puerto Rico and the energy grid, they also wanted to return home and help with the power restoration,” said Kimberly Blair, Gulf Power spokesperson. “Two of the engineers got that chance to return home and help with this historic effort and gained valuable experience that will benefit our customers.”
Diana Rivera, a Field engineer at Pine Forest in Pensacola, just returned from a month in Puerto Rico and Herb Andujar, Protection and Control manager who works at the Pensacola Corporate Office, will return home this week. He will be replaced by another Gulf Power employee.
They are part of a Southern Company contingent — including Mississippi Power, Alabama Power and Georgia Power — and thousands of other utility workers from across the nation assisting with the massive storm restoration.
A crew of eight Gulf Power lineworkers and additional support personnel have also been working in Puerto Rico since late January.
Rivera grew up in Utuado, a rural area in the center of the island. She had only recently been recruited to Gulf Power from the University of Puerto Rico when Maria tore through her island homeland. She was shocked when she returned home and saw the lingering damage.
“Power lines down, lots of vegetation down,” said Rivera who returned to Pensacola in early February after spending a month working for PowerSecure, a subsidiary of Southern Company. She worked as a liaison with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the restoration efforts.
“Here in Northwest Florida after a storm, I patrol power lines and calculate the scope of damages,” Rivera said. “In Puerto Rico, I was preparing daily update reports, arranging the procurement and requisition of materials and working with the line crews. I integrated with my coworkers to absorb as much information as I could from those with more experience. I have more restoration skills now than I had before.”
She gained experience overcoming unexpected challenges crews often face in storm restoration. “We had challenges with materials, washed away roads, weather, the electrical system; but every day we had a plan to overcome the challenge we were facing and that’s how we were turning lights on,” Rivera said.
Gulf Power teams faced terrain and infrastructure completely different than what they’re used to. “A long feeder line can go over steep hills and across several gorges that might serve less than 50 customers,” Andujar said.
Andujar, who has worked 11 years for Southern Company including more than a year with Gulf Power, arrived in Puerto Rico in January to secure what the crews needed — lodging, food, materials — to do their jobs.
“Our team is fortunate to have several key players that have made the material procurement process as successful as it can be under the circumstances,” he said.
As bilingual Puerto Ricans, he and Rivera were assets to their teams.
“Being from here and knowing the language and the culture has enabled me to develop key relationships and navigate through the continuously changing processes,” said Andujar, who is from the Bayamon region and a University of Puerto Rico graduate.
Rivera also had another advantage; she grew up in a family of energy workers and was familiar with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
“My father was a lineworker and my brother still is,” she said. “Looking up to them spiked my interest in this field and influenced my love for math and science that made pursuing a career in electrical engineering the perfect choice.”
Even though the Gulf Power crews work was tough, they were overwhelmed by the gratitude the residents showed them by offering them restrooms, water and food, Rivera said.
“They were grateful for us working to energize their homes,” she said. “When I visited crews in the field, I would find them eating lunch the locals cooked for them. Local police volunteered to guard our trucks, equipment and materials overnight, so the guys didn’t have to drive them back and forth every day, which usually took two-plus hours.”
Rivera and Andujar both feel a sense of pride to have had the opportunity to help restore power and normalcy to their fellow Puerto Ricans.
“I’ve worked several storms with Gulf Power, but this one has hit me the most,” Rivera said. “It’s my native home. When I saw Gulf Power crews and the bucket trucks, I got emotional. I needed to see my Gulf Power people.”
The sight of Gulf Power trucks rolling out of the port in Puerto Rico in January also stirred emotions in Andujar. He was happy to be able to meet the Gulf Power lineworkers and the support personnel as they arrived at the airport, shaking each one’s hand.
“It was an amazing sight,” he said. “I’ve never been prouder to work for Gulf Power and Southern Company. It was a very proud moment to see them coming to my island to help out.”