Kelly Whittemore has worked his share of fires, windstorms and other disasters as a principal manager in Transmission and Distribution for Southern California Edison. He was part of an SCE team in 2012 dispatched to the East Coast to help with power restoration after Hurricane Sandy.
So he thought he was ready to head a 10-person SCE team in December to help the Puerto Rico Energy Resiliency Working Group and the Corps of Engineers after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island’s power system.
“But nothing I’ve done before is even close to what’s out here,” he said from the SCE Emergency Operations Center office in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where the team was assigned after arriving on the island Dec. 7.
Ponce is on the south side of the island, about a two-hour drive across the mountains from San Juan. The SCE team has been doing planning, preparing damage assessments, maps and photos, and ordering materials for the upcoming repairs.
Signs of the destruction are everywhere — poles and wires down, steel power poles bent in half by the winds, trees stripped of their leaves. Only about half the people on the island have their power restored.
Whittemore said that in the Ponce region alone, 10 to 20 miles of wire is down in the mountainous jungle where the only access is on winding roads barely wide enough for one vehicle.
David Karaffa, the SCE team’s logistics section chief, said just getting materials and equipment to the island is a challenge.
“It’s not like I can call a vendor or arrange a ‘will call’ for an insulator,” he said.
Most equipment takes four or five days to get to the island by barge — plus additional time to be trucked across the U.S. to be shipped.
These challenges have made it a long month for the team, which has worked 12-hour days, seven days a week even over the holidays. Edison tried to ease the hardship by sending a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree and care packages. The company also arranged to deliver packages from the team’s families that included photos, cards and gifts.
Jennifer Potter, a single mother of a teenager and three adult children who is helping the SCE team with resources, bridged the distance using FaceTime to watch her family open their gifts at home. It made her grateful for what she has.
“You look at these families who have been without power here for more than 100 days and it tears at your heartstrings,” she said.
One holiday surprise was a visit by Pedro Pizarro, president and CEO of Edison International, Southern California Edison’s parent company.
In addition to visiting with the SCE team, Pizarro, who is originally from Puerto Rico, toured damaged areas and talked with residents in the community in Spanish.
“Everybody in Ponce was talking about it all day,” said Whittemore.
SCE is just one of the utilities providing support for the restoration effort under the leadership of the Edison Electric Institute. By month’s end, about 5,500 workers will be on the island working.
“Providing support to fellow electric companies in need is a hallmark of our industry, and I am very proud of our unique mutual assistance program,” said Institute President Tom Kuhn.
John Perry, who is overseeing operations for the SCE team, said that even though he missed the holidays and his birthday with his family, he has no regrets.
“We have had a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we will always remember,” he said.
Whittemore’s team headed home this week and has been replaced by a fresh group from Edison that will stay until February.