Power mission in Puerto Rico set to be largest ever in U.S.

U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Jitu Whitehead, a transmission and distribution specialist with the 249th Engineering Battalion, D-Company, repairs power lines in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, Oct. 19, 2017. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and its federal partners continue 24-hour operations to conduct missions in support of those affected by Hurricane Maria. | U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts

After the most devastating hurricane in 89 years hit Puerto Rico, all 3.4 million residents were left without power. Though uncertainty remains as to how much it will take to repair the electric grid, restoring power in Puerto Rico is quickly becoming the largest power mission to ever take place on U.S. soil, according to Lt. Col. Daniel Kent, Commander of the 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power.

The 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, is one of the teams in the power mission. The battalion is a versatile power generation battalion assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, that provides large-scale power to military units and federal relief organizations during full-spectrum operations. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency assigned the power mission to USACE, the agency was quick to include the 249th Engineer Battalion in its efforts.

As of early November, the 249th Battalion had mobilized 90 team members on the ground in Puerto Rico. The battalion is tasked by two separate power missions: Task Force Temporary Emergency Power, which involves installing generators in critical facilities, and Task Force Power Restoration, which involves repairing the power grid.

Task Force Temporary Emergency Power

“Three times as many generators have already been installed in Puerto Rico than in Texas and Florida combined,” says Capt. Jaime Cabrera, Commander, Bravo Company, 249th Engineer Battalion.

As of Nov. 1, Task Force Temporary Emergency Power had installed 365 generators, a number that increases every day. Already, the battalion has installed more generators in Puerto Rico than have ever been installed anywhere in the U.S. during an emergency power mission, according to Capt. Cabrera.

Capt. Cabrera mentioned 249th is following the prioritization list set forth by FEMA and the Government of Puerto Rico, which includes hospitals, emergency shelters, water facilities, and wastewater facilities. Once those are complete, priority shifts to police stations, fire stations, and schools.

The generators the battalion are installing are not the same as those found in a house; most are high-capacity generators that can produce 250 times the amount of electricity of a typical home generator. Installation can take an entire day and requires certified electricians to connect the distribution line directly to the generator. When complete, they serve as an essential source of temporary power to hospitals and other critical facilities.

The battalion’s efforts don’t stop once installation is complete.

Long-term use of generators, which is anticipated in Puerto Rico, requires routine maintenance to keep functioning. For each installation, the 249th needs to calculate how many hours each generator has left in order to schedule maintenance. The battalion is coordinating with hospitals days prior to conducting maintenance to ensure critical processes, such as surgeries, are not impacted.

“Our job is to help the people of Puerto Rico get back on their feet,” says Chief Warrant Officer 2 Richard Allen, 249th Mission Commander. “If I can do that, I’ve done my job.”

Task Force Power Restoration

The road to repairing the grid is a process that includes four main lines of effort: Provide temporary emergency power for critical facilities, ensure adequate generation at the power plants, reinstall and repair transmission lines, and restore and repair distribution lines, ultimately providing power to local residences.

The mission for Task Force Emergency Power is to accomplish the first step in the process, which is to supply temporary power. Remaining steps fall under Task Force Power Restoration, where Delta Company, a unit within the 249th Engineer Battalion, is currently working to repair the electric grid.

Damaged power lines along a road in Humacao, PR show some of the damages in one of the hardest hit municipalities after Hurricane Maria on Oct. 28, 2017. |Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Dr. Michael IzardCarroll

Delta Company is an Army Reserve unit comprised of linemen. The unit deployed to Puerto Rico on October 13 on what they call their largest mission to date, according to 1st Lt. Kieran Davis, Operations Officer for Delta Company.

Twenty-three personnel from Delta Company — the most to ever deploy for a single mission — are currently on the ground repairing distribution lines in the San Juan area in collaboration with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

The process begins with Delta Company receiving new poles from PREPA, which are then firmly secured in place. Fallen distribution lines — usually tangled and covered in debris — are then “fished” from the ground and placed in the power pole. The lines are not energized when in place, and will remain as such until transmission lines come back online. Delta Company completes an average of 10 power poles per day, and so far has repaired more than 27,000 feet of distribution line.

 

Delta Company is currently scheduled for at least 90 days in Puerto Rico, but stressed they will not leave until their mission is complete. “We want people to get home and turn the light switch on,” says Sgt. 1st Class Jitu Whitehead, the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge. “We want to bring the comfort back.”

Despite the long road ahead, Delta Company is grateful to be part of the efforts to restore power in Puerto Rico. They’re motivated by the Puerto Rican people, who often wave and honk at them as they repair power lines along the street. “When they see us, they know good things are happening,” says Whitehead. “It gives them hope.”

The 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, has proven indispensable in the power mission. Every day the battalion installs temporary generators at critical facilities, and continues repairs on distribution lines. When asked to about 249th, the battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Kent, said it’s ultimately about teamwork.

“Power missions are a team effort,” he said. “I’m equally proud of our planning and USACE employees and contractors that are working side-by-side with 249th Soldiers. The people of Puerto Rico are counting on us.”

 

By Patricia Fontanet Rodriguez, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers