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Northland utility crews take expertise to Puerto Rico

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A Minnesota Power crew in Puerto Rico works to remove a pole that had tipped over. The line trucks could not access this site due to the narrow roads. Courtesy of Minnesota Power2 / 3
A Minnesota Power lineman works to connect wires to a substation built by PREPA in the mountains of Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Power3 / 3

MARICAO, Puerto Rico—Faced with going into a 1,000-foot-deep ravine to fix a power line near Maricao, Puerto Rico, Minnesota Power linemen turned to two local men for help.

The men had been running their well pumps off generators to get water since hurricanes Irma and Maria cut off their power last fall, explained Dean Erdman, the line crew supervisor with Minnesota Power and part of a contingent of employees from the Duluth-based utility who have spent the past month on the island.

"Our trucks would not make it. Not even our pickup trucks would make it down there, and they had a little Suzuki Samurai, a little four-wheel-drive SUV ... and it went right down and right back up. We went down there with him, we fixed the line and then he drove us back up," Erdman said. "The people in this area are willing to do whatever it takes to help us out to get their power lines back up and running. They're all super-friendly."

There's little that Minnesota Power crews have experienced in northern Minnesota's landscape and weather that prepared them for restoring power across ravines and the mountainous, jungle-like terrain on the western side of Puerto Rico for the past 30 days, they said.

The narrow, twisting roads have presented driving challenges, with it sometimes taking 30 minutes to drive a large utility truck a mile. Downed power lines and poles are nowhere to be found, either blown entirely away by the hurricane or buried under jungle vegetation that has grown since the storms. Crews navigate steep mountainsides, cutting through vegetation that can be six feet high and struggling to keep new power lines from becoming entangled in the trees.

"This is nothing that I've ever experienced in my career," said Mike Stingle, area operations foreman, who has worked for Minnesota Power for 32 years. "In some places, it's just total devastation. You don't even know that there was a power line there."

Nearly 20 linemen and support staff from Minnesota Power and Superior Water, Light and Power, as well as their vehicles, have spent the past 30 days in Puerto Rico as part of a mutual aid effort to restore power on the island after the two hurricanes hit in September. The Northland utility companies have three crews working alongside nine crews from utility companies from the southern U.S.

The Northland linemen will be returning on Saturday, Feb. 24 and a second wave of Minnesota Power linemen will arrive on the island Sunday, Feb. 25, to continue the work. Erdman, as well as Minnesota Power engineer Aaron Nelson, will be staying on the island for the second 30-day stint to ensure continuity in the work.

Parked high up on a hillside to get cell service — with a view of Cabo Rojo on the edge of the ocean in the distance — Erdman and Stingle told the Duluth News Tribune on Wednesday, Feb. 21, that they were looking forward to the possibility of the substation being energized that night. If that happened, homes would be getting power on the new lines that the crews have spent the past month installing.

"We might be able to turn some lights on tomorrow, and these people are going to go nuts," Stingle said. Erdman added, "It's going to be a fun day."

A helping hand

As crews have worked in the area, local residents have been taking photos and making lunch for them.

"These people haven't seen anybody here for four-and-a-half months, so they've been excited to see activity in the area," Stingle said.

Erdman said he thought about his own community of Little Falls, Minn., when deciding to go to Puerto Rico. He'd feel bad if his town went months without power, he said, because a utility crew's job is to bring power back, no matter what the cause of the outage. Then he heard that a Little Falls veterinarian, who is from Puerto Rico, was sending money to her family still living on the island to help pay for a generator and the generator's gas.

"When I heard that story, that really said, 'I'm going and I'm going to do the best with what I can do,'" said Erdman, who is originally from Superior, Wis., and has worked for Minnesota Power for 27 years.

Stingle has gone on other mutual-aid calls in his career, usually for no more than two weeks following a storm or tornado. He said he was drawn to help in Puerto Rico because it's a unique opportunity that he may never encounter again in his career.

Back in Duluth, Tim Laeupple, manager of line operations at Minnesota Power, said it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their employees.

"What we've been talking about is choosing to serve the people of Puerto Rico. It's more of a mission to help than anything," Laeupple said.

Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge pointed out that Duluth residents know what it's like to go without electricity for days after a July 2016 windstorm knocked out power, and linemen came from outside Minnesota to help restore electricity. Although that power outage lasted no more than a week, Laeupple noted that parts of Puerto Rico have gone without power for more than 150 days.

Overcoming challenges

The Northland workers have been staying at a motel in Mayaguez and driving more than an hour — and up to 3,000 feet above sea level — to restore power to a remote area in the mountains near the town of Maricao. They eat breakfast and dinner with other utility crews in a large tent and then get a packed lunch to bring with them. Their work day, including the drive to and from the job sites, begins at 5:30 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. at the earliest.

Although they sometimes have views of the ocean while they work, they're also cutting through vegetation to go through ravines to put up power lines.

"It's so steep, you kinda slide down it almost, chop your way through or cut your way through," Stingle said. Erdman added, "Or you find a road that the locals have made to get down to the bottom of it and it might be a couple hundred meters away, and you have to go over there and go down the trail. ... Then you get down to the bottom, then you have to find out where your wire is. It's a whole different way of doing linework."

Erdman said the best part of the experience has been communicating with the local residents despite language barriers. Most of the residents speak Spanish and some understand English. Crews have been using a smartphone language app to help communicate. Erdman said he feels good when there's understanding in a conversation, despite not speaking the same language.

Stingle said he wished he had seen the area before the hurricanes. The area around Maricao is largely coffee and banana farms that have had to start over from scratch with their plantings since the hurricanes hit, Stingle said. Now that they've worked in Puerto Rico, both Stingle and Erdman said they want to return on vacation.

"Come to Puerto Rico, it's a beautiful country," Stingle said.