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By Bret Marchese, Director of Distribution Maintenance, Salt River Project

*Editorial Note: The following article appeared in the July/August issue of the UAA Newsline.

Disaster Strikes Puerto Rico

From mid-September to early October of 2017, Hurricane Maria brought extensive devastation and loss to Puerto Rico, Dominica, Saint Croix, and many other islands in the southeast and mid-Atlantic U.S. With 175 mph winds, Maria caused more than $91 billion in damage and more than 3,000 fatalities, making it the worst storm in history for the islands affected and, at the time, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in nearly 20 years.

Just two weeks prior, Hurricane Irma—another category five hurricane—had passed north of Puerto Rico, causing extensive damage and outages. As Maria approached, approximately 80,000 Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) customers were still without power. When Maria made landfall on September 20th, the PREPA power grid was destroyed.

The island’s power grid was demolished, leaving all 3.4 million residents without electricity. Government officials estimated that it would take months to restore power and rebuild other infrastructure. On September 22nd, the entirety of Puerto Rico was declared a Federal Disaster Zone, initiating various emergency response efforts. Over the next few months, progress was being made toward restoring power, yet hundreds of thousands of people were still without.

Setting Up the Incident Command Structure

While PREPA worked to get power restored, the American Public Power Association (APPA) and Edison Electric Institute (EEI) began reaching out to utilities within its network to support the restoration effort. PREPA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were underway with relief efforts. Still, the sheer size of the power restoration effort warranted involvement from utilities trained in disaster response and mutual assistance. As a member of APPA, Salt River Project (SRP) was contacted to provide support.

Puerto Rico is divided into seven regions, with utilities assigned to each area. By the time initial relief arrived, contractors on the ground had been working for more than 100 days. The situation was less than ideal due to a lack of a centralized command structure, and as a result, contractors were working separately without a unified direction. APPA and EEI worked together to establish a country-wide, unified incident command (IC) structure responsible for communications, overseeing logistics, material coordination, planning, and power-related disaster recovery efforts.

With the need to restore power efficiently and safely and recognizing that the task was greater than could be handled by a single IC entity, regional ICs were established across the island. Each IC team covered the following skill areas: planning, logistics, operations, safety, and communications. SRP was tasked with running the IC from the Carolina region east of the capital city, San Juan. While SRP did not have line workers on the ground in Puerto Rico, the team members who traveled there served in leadership roles, providing guidance for PREPA and other utilities. SRP’s leaders lead regional communications, damage assessments, material-needs assessments, and established restoration priorities. The leaders took responsibility for communicating with and educating teams how to work safely and efficiently to restore power as quickly as possible.

As one of these team members, I was called down to Puerto Rico for a 30-day shift as our Regional Incident Commander. Alongside other SRP team members and professionals from other participating utilities, we worked to ensure the regional team operated efficiently and provided the best guidance and coordination possible for the people executing restoration work every day.

Prioritizing Restoration Efforts and Safety

As materials for power restoration were being delivered by barge to the island, it was essential that orders for material and communications were correctly managed from the get-go. As SRP was an IC leader along with the other six regional IC teams, we would meet with the unified IC team daily to review progress and discuss safety issues, the number of crews working, critical circuit restoration completion, and estimated time to restoration (ETR).

A pivotal part of these meetings was coordinating the overall work effort to ensure that crews knew where they were supposed to be, what work needed to be done, and what materials were necessary to complete the work. Prior to establishing ICs, crews were working under limited guidance and, as a result, experienced overlap in their work areas that slowed down relief efforts and put workers in unsafe situations. Thanks to the IC approach, workers were able to focus on their assigned areas without overlap, helping to accelerate restoration while ensuring the safety of the workers from the utilities, contractors, and host utility.

Additionally, the SRP team was able to communicate the daily safety briefings and incidents to crews, which helped prevent safety incidents throughout their assigned region. Due to the widespread lack of power, crews could not continue working after dark since streetlights were either destroyed or unable to be powered. Driving safety was also a priority, as there were no working stoplights in major intersections. The SRP team, along with other safety representatives, would meet to discuss safety issues and communicate guidance to crews working across the region.

Applying Lessons Learned for the Future

Through the experience working in the IC structure, our team had learned the importance of separating traditional roles from an IC structure’s responsibilities. When disaster strikes, it’s essential for everyone involved to work together toward remediation. A variety of traditional roles were deployed to support restoration in Puerto Rico, including:

  • Line crew supervisors who served as both sectional operations and logistics chiefs
  • Line crew supervisors who oversaw daily work performed by utility crews and provided damage assessments and attention to overall worker safety
  • Engineers who served as planning chiefs and also prioritized restoration
  • Designers who assisted with damage assessments, mapping, switching requests, materials coordination, and new pole-planning work
  • Warehouse managers who served as material leads

An effective IC structure must be defined and established early. Those that will be involved must be trained on ICS principles, roles, and responsibilities, given the disaster or emergency. IC structures should endeavor to have an early detection and implementation system in place to ensure that work is carried out in the most efficient, safe, and expedient way possible. Finally, an IC should be scalable, as not all who are part of the IC structure may be needed. In some instances, only a few team members may be required. Structures should be built to allow for rapid deployment with the right amount of team members for the incident at hand.

While complete power restoration extended until August of 2018, APPA members’ hard work contributed to a more expedient effort. Following its experiences in Puerto Rico, SRP has given considerable focus to establishing an IC structure within its own organization. Utilities across the country and beyond are encouraged to consider a similar approach—if they have not already—because when disaster strikes, efforts and investments in a structure that is ready to tackle the responsibility of rapid and efficient response are undoubtedly worthwhile.

About Bret Marchese

Bret Marchese joined Salt River Project in 1998. In his current role as Director of Distribution Maintenance, Marchese leverages more than 20 years of experience in maintenance, construction, technology, transmission, and distribution to ensure SRP’s distribution systems continue to provide reliable power for more than two million people in central Arizona. He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Dana College.