By Greg FudererNovember 14, 2017
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico --The Joint Field Office for the federal government's response to Hurricane Maria is located in the Puerto Rico Convention Center in the Isla Grande section here. One can see the Navy's hospital ship USNS Comfort docked in the harbor nearby. The command and control of the nation's Maria recovery effort takes place here.
To the east, 47.5 kilometers away, is the small, lush hillside community of Las Colas. One takes Route 968, a winding barely-two lane road, as the final step to get there, passing the Wyndham Rio Mar Tennis Center and Golf Course before approaching the top, near Richie's Cafe. Capt. Tom Hickey, commander of the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) Company D, and 1st Lieut. Kieran Davis, his deputy, stand at a small overlook awaiting a visit from Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North, who leads the federal government's military response.
Two men work to repair the roof of Richie's Café. Red mission tiles, the semi-cylindrical type laid in an alternating convex and concave pattern, lie in a pile against one wall as a dog trots back and forth inspecting their work.
"We're based out of Rhode Island," Hickey says, "but the guys are from all over. Mostly the Northeast, but we have one guy who's from Alaska."
The sound of sirens grows louder as the two motorcycle policemen escorting the general's vehicle approach.
One of Prime Power's responsibilities is to provide commercial-level power to federal relief organizations. Delta Company is unique within the 249th, being the only unit composed entirely of reservists. Hickey said 23 Soldiers deployed in response to Hurricane Maria. The five-man advance crew, or ADVON, arrived Oct. 8, with the remainder coming to the island Oct. 13. He said it is hard to quantify the work they've done so far.
"One pole may take five minutes, another could take an entire day," he said.
Hickey and Davis estimate they have run about 15 kilometers of power line. They start at the end of the line and work their way back toward the power source. On this day, several utility trucks tuck themselves along the side of the road, men in buckets, winching lines between adjacent poles.
Traffic cones mark the restricted area under the buckets. Safety guards regulate the flow of traffic. Several drivers take the time to say, "Thank you, you guys are doing great work. Thanks for coming here," as they slowly drive past.
"Poles, lines, cross arms and insulators. That's the bulk of our work," Hickey said. "We use porcelain insulators here because it doesn't melt in the heat."
"Responding to a disaster is completely different from installing a system," Davis added. "You're starting from scratch there. You have plans to follow. Here, it's different. We're trying to restore the system to functionality."
Buchanan described his impression of the situation when he arrived on the island immediately after Hurricane Maria passed. From his helicopter tour of the island, he saw the roads were impassable, impeding efforts to effectively evaluate the situation and to get manpower, equipment and supplies where they were needed.
"We've actually come a long way," Buchanan told Delta Company. "It's just that there's a long way to go."
One of the obstacles to overcome, Buchanan said, is the impression that a quick and easy solution to the power grid exists because the U.S. Army is involved.
"We've gotten questions, 'How come we can't fix everything? You're the Army,'" Buchanan said. "But we're not an Army of electricians. We have electricians in the Army, but it's not specialized. We do everything. But the 249th does have electricians. And it's great to have them here, making a difference."
Buchanan said responders face both short-term and long-term challenges after Maria.
"In the short term, it's parts. It was difficult to get things here," he said, referring to the distance supplies have to travel to the island and the limited access at sea ports and airports immediately following Maria.
The greater challenge, Buchanan said, is in the long-term.
"The power grid was outdated to begin with, and it was devastated by the hurricane. That impacts nearly everything else," he said. "Medical facilities, schools, water and sewage, the entire infrastructure is dependent on electricity."
Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, Buchanan said there was much satisfaction in being part of the response.
"We're making great contributions, and we're going to be here for a while," he said. "We're helping fellow Americans, and it's great to be a part of that."
Hickey, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the Maria response was the most evolving situation he's seen.
"A disaster response is different." Hickey said. "Assessments are constantly changing. It requires different tools, different capabilities of trucks."
Expectations are also different.
"People want their power back once their line is connected," Hickey said. "Homes and businesses have generators that have to be accounted for. We have to ensure no live lines are lying on the ground, things like that, to get the power back on. It's a long process with devastation this widespread."
It also requires a different breed of responder.
"These guys are the real pros," he said of the Soldiers in Delta Company. "They do the hard work. It's almost intimidating coming to a company with this level of expertise. My job is more aiming them than leading them."
And their technical expertise may not even be their finest asset, Hickey said. "These men are dedicated. They don't do it for the money. Most of them make six figures easily. They lose money coming here."
"We're going to depend on your dedication to get this accomplished," Buchanan told the Soldiers.