AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico - Terrain, tropics, and topography are among the challenges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are overcoming as part of the ongoing operation, Task Force Power Restoration, throughout the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, following the catastrophic hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.
The island is roughly rectangular, approximately 100 miles east to west and 30 miles north to south, comparable to the size of Connecticut. The Cordillera Central mountain range covers 60 percent of the island running east-west.
The island's power lines were severely damaged by wind speeds of up to 155 miles per hour. Puerto Rico has 2,400 miles of transmission lines across the island and 30,000 miles of distribution lines with more than 300 sub-stations. It is estimated that 80 percent of the grid has been affected.
Gaining access to the power transmission lines in the range has been difficult.
"Some crews have some tough terrain, they show up to the site and have to use a bulldozer to make a road, just get down to the area," said Tom Nguyen, a project engineer who works as a contractor liaison with the Corps.
Currently, USACE has 2,496 personnel on the ground, including 2,309 contractors from Fluor and PowerSecure, working directly on distribution and transmission lines.
Puerto Rico is located 5 degrees inside the Tropic of Cancer, and a long and wet growing season has added different difficulties not seen in the continental United States. About three months after the storms, an attempt was made to recover conductor, galvanized steel core wire, with a 10,000-pound lift helicopter. With the passing months, the conductor was too overgrown to pull up.
Another issue was the growth of Ivy between the twisted strands of the conductor.
The majority of the areas that are still without power are located in the mountainous regions where the work sites are harder to get to and get around in.
"It's slow going, it's challenging terrain," said Andy Costello, a manager with PowerSecure. "Three miles from here you have mountains to get up. The streets there are a little bit on the narrow side, and the equipment we have is on the broad side, it is eight-foot-wide, and with the outrigger, it's a little larger." On several occasions, the power poles were dragged into place with a bulldozer, and some transmission towers were helicoptered into areas not accessible by road.
"Sometimes we have to use a bulldozer to make a right-of-way if the right-of-way is not there," said Jason Becker, a USACE quality assurance engineer. "The terrain is soft and swampy, or a really thick jungle, and the hills are exceedingly steep."
USACE is partnering with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the Department of Energy, FEMA and contractor to restore safe and reliable power to the people of Puerto Rico. As assigned by FEMA, USACE leads the federal effort to repair the hurricane-damaged electrical power grid in support of the Government of Puerto Rico.
As of January 5, PREPA reports 59.4 percent or 875,500 of the 1.47M customers who are able to receive electric power have their service restored.
The Corps estimates it will restore power to the majority of customers by the end of February.