- Written by CLAIRE SHEFCHIK
- Published: 24 October 2017
It was 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, and 60 workers wearing hard hats were clustered around the Digicel store in the Tortola Pier Park, waiting to be served a hot breakfast before jumping in a phalanx of blaze-orange trucks and beginning another day of working to get the Virgin Islands back on the grid.
“This is our United Nations of linesmen,” said BVI Electricity Corporation General Manager Leroy Abraham, gesturing to the array of faces representing 44 countries and territories.
Everyone had their own reasons for being there, but, with 80 percent of the grid damaged by Hurricane Irma, those reasons were immaterial.
“Whether they were a banker, a cook, a sailor, whatever they were before, I don’t care,” Mr. Abraham said. “What matters is that they are here and they are helping us out.”
Many of the workers have formed crews based around technical skills they honed elsewhere. Franklin Guerra is a marine electrician who, up until Irma, worked for Horizon Yacht Charters.
“The boats are mashed up, so they had to lay off people while they wait for the insurance assessors, and I was one of them,” he said, adding that he is grateful to be able to put his skills to use in another field until the business resumes in January.
Some workers come from less hands-on fields. Elton Callwood is a magazine publisher, but he says he is just doing what he has to do to make a living temporarily. Publishing depends on advertising, he said, and that’s going to be in short supply for a while.
“Businesses can’t afford to advertise when they’re just getting on their feet,” he said.
If necessary, he could have work at the BVIEC for quite a while. While speaking at a BVI Finance Limited meeting last Thursday morning, BVIEC Chairman Ron Potter said it could take three months just to restore 60 percent of the grid.
Meanwhile, Mr. Abraham is measuring the corporation’s progress in small steps.
“Even if we only put one crossarm on a pole one day, that’s one less crossarm we have to put on,” he said.
Progress on the grid
Still, he added, most days the team accomplishes far more than that. The VI electrical grid consists of one power station, four substations and 15 feeders. As of Oct. 10, all substations and five out of 15 feeders were semi-operational, and two feeders were fully operational.
Mr. Potter estimated that the BVIEC has already restored at least 20 percent of the electrical grid in all. That progress includes power to parts of Road Town, Virgin Gorda, and Anegada; Pockwood Pond to Havers; Peebles Hospital, supermarkets, banks and businesses in Road Town; and telecommunication providers and water pump stations.
Tuesday, Mr. Abraham was preparing to catch a boat to Virgin Gorda to continue work there.
“People keep telling me they didn’t expect this amount of progress already,” he said.
Then again, even in the aftermath of most powerful storm in the Atlantic, no single task his men are facing in restoring power is particularly out of the ordinary.
“Everything we’re doing right now, we’ve done before,” Mr. Abraham said. “Nothing is new. It’s only the magnitude of the damage that’s new.”
But, he added, “It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by that sometimes.”
However, despite a few safety concerns with unfamiliar equipment, Mr. Abraham said he hasn’t had many issues with the temporary workers.
“They don’t need many skills because most of the work doesn’t take much skill,” Mr. Abraham said. “Moving things from one place to another, directing traffic.”
Even with 60 linesmen already working with the corporation, many more are needed. Mr. Potter said that the three-month 60 percent timeline would quicken if BVIEC could bring down more workers. And the agency, he added, must double that number to finish restoring the grid by 2018.
Many of the workers from abroad have been sent by a regional organisation called Caribbean Electric Utility Services Corporation.
“They have been sending teams and men when they become available,” Mr. Potter said. “But when they send that to us we have to have material and equipment.”
He added that this includes “poles, transformers, several hundred feet of wire.”
“We’ve been getting that in order in the last couple weeks,” he said.
But he added that “one of the things we need to be cognisant of is that we are competing with a number of affected jurisdictions.”
In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, areas including Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Dominica and St. Martin are all competing for the same resources.
‘Not for the faint of heart’
Mr. Potter described the priorities of the corporation in restoring power.
“In the first instance what we’ve done in terms of restoration, we’ve put on the hospital, shelters, water plants, supermarkets, [Financial Services Commission], schools, and the business district,” he said. “Health security, food security and water were their first order of business. Second, the economy.”
As the rebuilding process continues, power needs will become greater, and the corporation aims to be ready when the time comes to power hardware stores and concrete plants.
“Then,” he said, “we are looking at residences.”
It’s the homes that often provide the most satisfaction to Mr. Abraham and his crews as they go about their business.
“We work in rain and heat, but it has to be done. This is not for the faint of heart,” he explained. “However, there’s a great sense of fulfillment about the screeches of joy we hear when we put power to a customer’s home.”
Part of the work is designed to ensure that the process won’t take so long next time. Mr. Potter estimated that it would cost $25 million to restore the grid and another $20-$50 million to make the system significantly more resilient.
“None of us would wish Irma upon us, but there is the possibility it could happen again, and if it happens again, we shouldn’t have to wait three to six months or a year to get back to where we were before,” he said.
Has anything surprised Mr. Abraham about this process of restoring power?
“A lot of us don’t behave well under crisis,” he responded. “There are some motorists, especially, who don’t want to give us a break. I recognise that everyone is under an immense amount of stress. Most of our homes were damaged; mine is uninhabitable.”
However, he urged people to have consideration and patience.
“Just wait 15 minutes while we connect power to your home or your family’s home,” Mr. Abraham said. “We are not doing this for ourselves, but for the entire territory.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 19, 2017 print edition.