The job was tedious, but the effects are far-reaching.
Seven employees from the Winter Garden facility were among Duke Energy’s team of more than 200 that went to Puerto Rico and spent six weeks restoring power on the island.
It was five months ago that Hurricane Maria battered the Caribbean, but Puerto Rico, the hardest hit, is still without power in some parts of the country. Duke deployed employees who volunteered for the job, as well as bucket trucks, equipment and supplies on barges to the island.
Tommie Parker, construction and maintenance supervisor, and six members of his team — Eric Dupenthaler, Josh Wilson, Booker Jones, Steven Goepfort, Shawn Mathis and Richard Clarke — were part of the crew that helped rebuild the power grid and restore electricity in the coastal region of Ponce.
The Duke Energy team joined personnel from several U.S. electric companies deploying resources to support the effort. The workers join the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Parker was eager to volunteer to go and said many of his co-workers felt the same about the opportunity.
“It’s amazing the response you get from people you’re helping,” Parker said. “We’re restoring power, and we help people. That’s just what we do.”
A TYPICAL DAY
The volunteers stayed at a Hilton resort in Ponce. Their day started at about 5 a.m. with breakfast, and then the workers learned road safety and stretched before their 85-minute drive to the top of the hill.
“We do stretching of our soft tissue because we do a lot of climbing during the day,” Parker said. “We talk about our materials, and once we're loaded we head up the mountain. Once we're at the top of the mountain, we do the pre-job briefing – that's when we talk about our work for the day and what we're going to do.
“We cover our location, where we'll be at in case of emergency,” Parker said. “We lay out the job for the day and lay out the hazards and (discuss) how to mitigate them and what to look for.”
Then they get to work.
This could include untangling or cutting and picking up downed wire and trimming the limbs of fallen trees where, according to the locals, tornadoes swept through. It wasn’t unusual for workers to pick up eight bundles of line in a half-mile span.
Crews were setting up poles, too.
Sometimes the terrain was inaccessible so the volunteers had to abandon their bucket trucks to climb mountains and poles.
They worked through misting rain, wind and hot temperatures at times.
“We work solid through the day,” Parker said. “We stop for lunch, and that’s about it. We make our lunches and take it with us. I’d say every three or four days the people up here feed us. … It’s awesome to be without power, and they’re still cooking.”
The communities in the region are sporadic and vary in size, and Parker said they could travel five or six miles before seeing a house.
“You might pass a little spot on the side of the mountain, and there might be six houses or 10,” he said. “They are running on generators; that’s a lot of gas. I know their water-pumping system from the mountains pumps to all the communities. All that’s on generators right now.”
At times, it took crews several days to get one line up and power restored for 15 people. It was just as likely that a line could take just one day and restore power to 70 homes.
“It feels good when you get somebody on,” Parker, a 14-year Duke employee, said.
“As far as my crew, they've done an outstanding job for the condition we've been in in the terrain,” he said. “It's very different than what you see in pictures. I'm like a brother's keeper. I want everyone to come home, just like they came up here.”
Duke Energy crews arrived in Ponce on Jan. 14 and successfully restored about 93% of the region. The Florida team returned home March 1.
Hurricane Maria is regarded as the worst natural disaster on record in Dominica and Puerto Rico. The Category 5 hurricane reached wind speeds of 175 mph.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.