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A crew of 13 Santee Cooper line workers and mechanics traveled to the island of St. Croix on November 22, 2017 to help restore power in the wakes of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

Patient For Power

It seemed like the storm would never end. For 15 hours, residents hunkered down as Hurricane Maria battered the island of St. Croix with 175 mph winds and torrential rains. Many homes were flooded and missing roofs. Trees and power lines lay twisted and mangled on the ground. The island was devastated. The storm left a path of destruction in its wake not felt since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. 

The morning of Sept. 20, Xiomara Herman of Christiansted and her husband, Roland, woke after riding out the storm, like many on the island. The storm had spared their home but left them in the dark. Xiomara did not know the extent of the damage to the island. Although she was grateful to be able to stay in her home, she and her family would learn to live without electricity for 68 days.

“It has been very interesting. You get to appreciate electricity, especially when you need it,” Xiomara said. “We don’t have potable water. We have cistern water so we need electricity to run our pump. Overall it has been a different experience.”

Xiomara Herman, of Christiansted, watches from her porch as Blake Ward, line tech A, reconnects her home to the electric grid.
Xiomara Herman, of Christiansted, watches from her porch as Blake Ward, line tech A, reconnects her home to the electric grid.

The Hermans were not alone. Hurricane Maria battered the small island, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands located 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, leaving 80 to 90 percent of the residents without power. However, the devastation reached much further than the island and hindered efforts to rebuild.

The island of St. Croix is powered by the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) and is part of a unique system of power grids.

WAPA also serves the islands of St. Thomas and St. John, but those islands are separated from St. Croix by a deep trench. The divide creates two districts with two distinct facilities completely separate from each other.

It all started on Sept. 6 when Hurricane Irma hit the islands of St. Thomas and St. John, devastating their transmission and distribution systems. The hurricane caused widespread ruin and damaged up to 90 percent of the power grid. As WAPA began the process of restoring electricity on the islands, the island of St. Croix was the lifeline for the recovery effort, supplying materials and water. Two weeks later Hurricane Maria hit St. Croix directly, leaving it in ruins.

Two months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, much work was left to do to get life in Christiansted powered and back to normal.
Two months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, much work was left to do to get life in Christiansted powered and back to normal.

The outlook was grim: One utility with two distinct systems, two Category 5 hurricanes that hit both districts separately with different degrees of damage. 

WAPA had to recover from that, explained Neil Vanderpool, director of transmission and distribution at WAPA. “You can’t expect or prepare for having two Cat 5s in the same year, in the same month,” Vanderpool said.

Though WAPA had contractors in place before the hurricanes, there were not nearly enough people to reach the pace of restoration they were seeking. Their goal was to restore power to 90 percent of their customers – by Christmas.  As a result, WAPA turned to stateside utilities to assist in the recovery effort. By having hundreds of boots on the ground, WAPA hoped their goal would become more of a reality.

Clockwise from top left: Santee Cooper crews gather any supplies they can before setting out for the day; Line Tech A Blake Ward gets ready to reconnect a home to the electric grid; Santee Cooper crews walk back to the ship they temporarily called home after a 12-hour day on St. Croix; Matthew Martin, line tech B, scavenges cable from a wooded area on St. Croix. Clockwise from top left: Santee Cooper crews gather any supplies they can before setting out for the day; Line Tech A Blake Ward gets ready to reconnect a home to the electric grid; Santee Cooper crews walk back to the ship they temporarily called home after a 12-hour day on St. Croix; Matthew Martin, line tech B, scavenges cable from a wooded area on St. Croix. Clockwise from top left: Santee Cooper crews gather any supplies they can before setting out for the day; Line Tech A Blake Ward gets ready to reconnect a home to the electric grid; Santee Cooper crews walk back to the ship they temporarily called home after a 12-hour day on St. Croix; Matthew Martin, line tech B, scavenges cable from a wooded area on St. Croix. Clockwise from top left: Santee Cooper crews gather any supplies they can before setting out for the day; Line Tech A Blake Ward gets ready to reconnect a home to the electric grid; Santee Cooper crews walk back to the ship they temporarily called home after a 12-hour day on St. Croix; Matthew Martin, line tech B, scavenges cable from a wooded area on St. Croix.
Clockwise from top left: Santee Cooper crews gather any supplies they can before setting out for the day; Line Tech A Blake Ward gets ready to reconnect a home to the electric grid; Santee Cooper crews walk back to the ship they temporarily called home after a 12-hour day on St. Croix; Matthew Martin, line tech B, scavenges cable from a wooded area on St. Croix.

Santee Cooper and utilities from Florida answered the call and left for St. Croix on Nov. 22, leaving their families right before the Thanksgiving holidays.

A total of 13 Santee Cooper employees, including 12 line technicians and one mechanic, left Myrtle Beach and traveled to the Port of Palm Beach to load nine Santee Cooper trucks, including bucket trucks and digger derricks, on a barge to St. Croix. They then flew to St. Croix, eager to get to work.

“As we’ve done many times in the past, we are responding to people in need,” said Mike Poston, vice president of retail operations. “Our line technicians selflessly volunteered to leave their families over the holidays in order to help restore electricity to people on St. Croix. It says a lot about their character to do that.”

Line technicians began work in the town of Christiansted. In the neighborhood of Barren Spot, blue tarps provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency dotted the view, protecting still-damaged roofs. Even after two months, trash piles grew on the sides of the streets as residents slowly rebuilt their homes. Though the sound of generators filled the air, many islanders sat on their front porches to catch the cool breeze as it blew past.

Joe Sawyer, line tech A, reaches for lines to reconnect.
Joe Sawyer, line tech A, reaches for lines to reconnect.

Utility trucks pulling into Barren Spot were a welcome sight for many who had been without power for so long.

“It means a lot to see the guys here,” Xiomara said. “I am excited. My birthday is on Friday, so this is a great birthday gift. I’ll be able to turn on my TV, lay down in my AC. I’ll enjoy some cool breeze and do my laundry, not by hand, and have a great time. Thank you guys so much!”

As line crews worked, neighbors gathered in the streets to watch. Children enjoyed a game of basketball as buckets lifted linemen above them repairing lines. Street by street, poles were reconnected and transformers replaced. As the sun cast long shadows on the neighborhood, everyone watched and waited in hopes of having power restored.

Reggie Graves, line tech C, reconnects wiring to a home while Brooks Cribb, line tech A, adds wiring to a new pole.
Reggie Graves, line tech C, reconnects wiring to a home while Brooks Cribb, line tech A, adds wiring to a new pole.

And for many, that’s exactly what happened when Santee Cooper crews came to town. With the flip of a fuse, a neighborhood had power for the first time in over two months. Children danced in the streets and adults ran out to hug those who restored a small bit of normalcy to their lives.

“I think that is the biggest reason why we do this. It’s not for the money; it’s just to make people’s lives a little bit better than what they were yesterday. We enjoy that,” said Matthew Martin, Santee Cooper line technician B.

The crew of 13 continued work in St. Croix through Dec. 20, when another group of Santee Cooper line technicians relieved them to continue restoration until late January. At the beginning of 2018, 92 percent of electric restoration on St. Croix was complete.

And as the Hermans’ power was restored, Xiomara danced on her front porch singing, “Happy birthday to me!”

“We’re just thankful we can help,” said Martin.

The first Santee Cooper crew left for St. Croix on November 22, 2017
The first Santee Cooper crew left for St. Croix on November 22, 2017. From left: Chase Prince, Line Technician C; Jerry Holt, Fleet Technician A; Brooks Cribb, Line Technician A; Matthew Martin, Line Technician B; Joe Sawyer, Line Technician A; Blake Ward, Line Technician A; Hunter Melton, Line Technician ; Jamie Anderson, Line Technician B; Barney Long, Crew Supervisor; Reggie Graves, Line Technician C; David Causey, Line Technician A; Andol Johnson, Line Technician B; and Larry Hall, Crew Supervisor.
Santee Cooper’s second crew arrived on St. Croix in late December 2017.
Santee Cooper’s second crew arrived on St. Croix in late December 2017 to continue helping restore power to the island. From left: James Milton, Fleet Technician A; Donnie Metzger, Crew Supervisor; Chris Osha, Line Technician A; Judson Ward, Line Technician C; Dennis Dutcher, Line Technician A; Garrett Gasque, Line Technician B; Chase Woodle, Line Technician A; Austin Griswold, Line Technician C; Lexie Creel, Line Technician C; Reggie Davis, Line Technician A; Austin Luken, Line Technician C; Kyle Powell, Crew Supervisor; Logan Sauls, Line Technician A (kneeling).