During a two-week span in September of 2017, the small Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico was devastated by a colossal one-two punch from Mother Nature. Category 5 Hurricane Irma and Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged the American territory leaving many of its 3.4 million residents without shelter, food, water, and all without power.
The first storm, Irma, jabbed at the northern part of the island on Sept. 6, disrupting power to about one million people. As FEMA personnel and the many Emergency Support Function agencies, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, mobilized and began recovery operations, they had to hunker down to ride out Hurricane Maria that arrived just 14 days after Irma. The second storm would deliver a knockout blow to the island’s aging and fragile power grid.
“There wasn’t an electric grid in the world that could survive the beating of a hurricane where there were registered winds of more than 200 miles per hour,” said Engineer Justo Gonzales, Interim Executive Director, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
The might of the storms weren’t the only contributors to the grid loss. The system was designed with 75 percent of the electrical generation in the south feeding 70 percent of the Island’s population in the north. This geography made the lines vital to transmission and distribution vulnerable. Additionally, years of inadequate maintenance and more recently, layoffs due to PREPA filing for bankruptcy in 2014 added to a disastrous mix that left islanders in the dark.
On September 21, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported near 100 percent of customers were without power, with the exception of facilities running on generators. Initial estimates revealed 80 percent of the 2,400 miles of transmission lines, 30,000 miles of distribution lines and 300 sub-stations were affected. The unprecedented damage led the U.S. Department of Energy to determine that normally-used methods of neighbor-state reinforcements would not alone handle the daunting task of restoring the Commonwealth’s power grid.
Together, DOE, FEMA and the Corps determined about eight days into the response effort that the Corps was the right federal agency to lead the Power Restoration effort. With the FEMA mission assignment in hand, the Corps “took on the nation’s toughest challenge: rebuild the grid in Puerto Rico,” said Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite. “When Army Engineers are needed we don’t back down, we rush to the point of the need.”
The overall approach was divided into three phases. Phase I focused on re-establishing the backbone of high-voltage transmission lines and providing spot generation at key public service nodes and population centers; Phase II expanded the line restoration to the lower-voltage distribution lines with a focus to additional population centers; and Phase III further expanding the reach of line restoration to outlying areas and includes the removal of many of the early-positioned spot generators.
“This restoration framework developed by the team in the early days of the effort has proven valuable throughout the on-going restoration process,” said Col. Jason A. Kirk, commander, Task Force Power Restoration.”
Task Force Power Restoration officially stood up on Oct. 11, 2017 and began by deploying 150 multi-discipline experts to Puerto Rico. Several days later, on Oct. 13, the Corps established offices in San Juan, Ceiba and Aguadilla. Additionally the Corps’ Prime Power specialists from Delta Co. 249th Engineer Battalion arrived in Puerto Rico to begin repairs to distribution lines.
“Learning the differences in this system was our biggest challenge but we quickly adapted to the needs for each situation,” said Prime Power Overhead Distribution Specialist, Spec. Hunter Browning. “We don’t use very many concrete poles stateside and here we had to figure out how to set them to restore power to residential neighborhoods.”
As the various agencies deployed across Puerto Rico to assess the power grid damage, the Albuquerque District Emergency Temporary Power Planning and Response Team (known as a PRT), one of seven in the Corps, worked with the U.S. Army 249th Engineer Battalion “Prime Power,” along with contractor teammates to tackle the daunting mission of providing life-saving temporary power generation to critical facilities.
“The unprecedented damage to the power grid had put us in a situation we had never seen before,” said Recovery Field Office Commander, Col. James DeLapp.
The PRT worked in response to FEMA’s direction to quickly perform power assessments and generator installations. By Oct. 28, 2017, the team would break the previous mark of 310 generators installed set during the Hurricane Katrina response efforts in 2005. By the end of October the team would reach 366 generators installed, averaging approximately twenty installations a day.
Power plant generation
The second line of effort was to support PREPA in ensuring adequate generation was available from Puerto Rico’s power plants. PREPA asked for the Corps’ assistance to bolster and stabilize output from the Palo Seco and Yabucoa power plants.
For Palo Seco, TF Power accomplished this mission by leasing and installing two 33-megawatt generators.
“This move provided load balancing capability in the Greater San Juan area which was critical to supporting PREPA’s priority of effort in the San Juan metropolitan area—home to almost two million of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million citizens,” said Kirk.
Restoring the Transmission “Backbone”
The other integral part to providing grid stability and reliability was through the restoration of the central Puerto Rico transmission loop in order to link power generation hubs in the north (San Juan) and south (Ponce and Guayama) as well as providing initiation of repairs to the distribution system in the San Juan and Mayaguez regions.
“The Corps’ Emergency Management mission is hands-down the most fulfilling of our many diverse missions – the ability to directly contribute to the well-being of our fellow citizens is an honor and privilege,” said Col. Jason Kirk who served as the second Task Force Power commander. “In Spanish I tell folks: Me siento honrado de servir Puerto Rico—my honor to serve Puerto Rico and to lead the Task Force that has included 800-plus civil servant volunteers who have worked extremely hard executing this critical mission to turn the lights on and deliver reliable power to the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico.
On March 23, 2018, Task Force Power Restoration reached 93.63 percent power restored to the people of Puerto Rico.