IBEW linemen make big difference in Puerto Rico

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IBEW AMEREN WORKERS and their trucks ready to head out into the mountains of Puerto Rico. – Ron Scott photo

Lineman Ron Scott tells the story of his trip

SCOTT

By CARL GREEN
Illinois Correspondent

Collinsville, IL – If a big tornado were to hit here, tearing down the St. Louis region’s power lines, veteran lineman Ron Scott would like to see some help brought in.

So he could hardly say no when asked if he was willing to join an Ameren contingent that restored power to a section of hurricane-struck Puerto Rico earlier this year.

Scott, an Ameren Illinois lineman and crew leader and member of IBEW Local 309, was in the first of three groups of about 75 workers each from Missouri and Illinois who joined the large-scale operation that saw the company sending trucks and equipment by barge to the island. Each group spent three weeks working every day to restore the power.

Residents of the U.S. territory island suffered for five months without power after hurricanes Irma and Maria blasted it in September. Ameren was one of the U.S. power companies in the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) that provided a total of 1,500 workers to make a major push, supplementing 4,000 emergency workers already on the island, and the power is now mostly restored.

PERSONAL RISK

Scott and the others had to think about things like the mosquito-spread Zika virus in deciding whether to go. He was one of those who said yes.

“The older I get, the risks don’t mean as much to me, like the mosquitoes and those kind of things,” he said in an interview with the Labor Tribune

“I think I would want that kind of help if we got hit that hard. I would want people to come and help us.”

His first step was taking four inoculation shots.

A WORKING RESORT

NEW FRIENDS: IBEW members (in back, with Ron Scott in the middle) pose with some of their new friends in Puerto Rico. – Ron Scott photo

The barges carrying the trucks were briefly delayed by a threatening storm at sea. When they were close to arriving, the linemen started flying down on chartered aircraft. Scott’s group was put up in a vacant resort, which provided hot meals and showers.

It was far from a vacation, though. They worked 16-hour days the whole time, in a tropical rain forest no less.

“It clouds up and then it will pour down a soaking rain on you for 15 to 20 minutes every morning,” Scott related. “Then it will quit, the sun will shine, and that afternoon, it will do it all again. We didn’t even bother to go get the raincoats. You were going to get wet, and it was a little too warm and humid to wear rain suits.”

They guarded against mosquito-borne illness by working in long sleeve, soaking their clothes in repellent and spraying themselves down every morning.

Scott’s group worked in the area of a mountain on the northeast coast east of San Juan. The first thing they saw was the mess left by the hurricanes and subsequent cleanup efforts.

“You could see in some areas where poles and wires were still down, and we helped clear them off,” he said. “Then we spread crews out around this mountainside in two directions, going up from both sides to attempt to work our way up and get as much done as we could.

“Every direction you look, you’re looking out over a mountain range,” Scott added. “It reminds you of southeast Missouri because it’s very hilly down there.”

7,500 POUND POLES

The hilly region uses enormous, concrete power poles to fight off hurricanes.

“That was a challenge in itself – up on a mountain side, trying to navigate 7,500-pound poles,” Scott said. “But we got in there, gave it our money’s worth, and after about a week, we started to turn the lights on.”

At first, inspectors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Puerto Rican utility would check carefully before powering up. But soon that wasn’t necessary.

“When they saw the quality of the work we had done as we went on up the mountain, they let us isolate it in sections, and they were quite pleased with the work Ameren had done. So the inspections kind of stopped because they knew we were doing it like it was supposed to be done,” Scott said.

“That said a lot for our ability to do the job. From that point, we just kind of worked our way up that mountain and out into the areas alongside the mountain where the people lived.”

Materials were a problem, with linemen from many companies working throughout the island and officials trying to supply all of them at once.

“We did have some materials on the trucks we sent over, so we depleted our own supplies as well,” Scott said. “With the few supplies we had and the lack of material, I think we really gave it a heck of an effort.”

He believes the Ameren groups set more than 300 poles in place and strung some 75,000 feet of wire.

AN AMEREN ILLINOIS TRUCK at one of the mountain work sites. – Ron Scott photo

GRATEFUL RESIDENTS

Their reward came in the sincere friendliness and gratitude of the residents.

“Sometimes it would be a week before we got a neighborhood back up and running, so you got to see people on a regular basis,” Scott said. “We got to know them on a first-name basis. They embraced us, and we embraced them. A lot of the people invited us to come back sometime on vacation.”

One local mayor held a dinner to honor Scott’s group.

“They roasted a pig and made some of the native dishes and let us come into their little area,” he said. “I was quite moved. I’ve been on a lot of storms in my career, and people are pretty much patient for the first few days, but you talk about five months … that was patience like I’ve never seen.

“They were just happy and willing to do anything they could to try and help us get done what we were trying to do. That was quite an experience.”

Scott has been on many storm damage missions, but he said this one was different.

“We don’t usually get to know the people like we did here, when we’re in and out on the storms I’ve worked on,” he said. “You don’t have that personal contact like we did here. They’ve got mangos, coconuts and bananas, and they go out there and pick them off the trees and say, ‘Hey, try a coconut!’”

AN IBEW CONTINGENT

All of the linemen were IBEW members, from Locals 309, 649, 702, 51, 2, 1439 and 148, he said.

Ray Wiesehan, Ameren’s vice president for corporate security and crisis management, shook their hands as they left for Puerto Rico on Jan. 26, joined them on the island, and then welcomed them back home on Feb. 20.

“I thought that was pretty stand-up-ish of him,” Scott said.

The company had just received an award from EEI for its assistance with recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas last September.

Wiesehan issued this description as the team set out: “The arrival of more crews in Puerto Rico is the culmination of months of planning and building operating and logistical infrastructure. Our teams, working with industry colleagues, EEI and the local energy company, are ready to accelerate the power restoration process for the people of Puerto Rico.”

GOING BACK?

Scott said he was willing to go back for another three weeks if he was called upon, but it didn’t happen.

He might go back anyway, he said – on his own time.

“I think I will,” he said. “I’ve already told my wife (Dolores) that in a couple of years, when things get back to normal, I’m going to go back. I’m going to try to visit some of those people I met, just to see if they remember me.

“We didn’t get to see much of the island, other than what we saw through the windshield heading up that mountain every day,” he said.

Still, there were rewards.

“It was well worth it,” Scott said. “They were very humble people. They proudly displayed the American flag. It just made you feel good to be there doing what we were doing for them.”

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