After Superstorm Sandy rattled New York, its storm surge washing over electrical equipment and darkening a large chunk of Manhattan, Johnny Price lived at the Con Edison control center where he worked for nearly a week straight.
“I just kind of stayed on a cot downstairs for the first six days,” Price said, then an operator responsible for Westchester County and Staten Island. “The emergency phone didn’t stop ringing for a day and a half, which was pretty wild. Tensions were high; my brain felt like mush after a 14-hour shift. We did about 14 or so shifts in a row.”
At the same time, it was exhilarating for Price. Con Ed, which services New York City and Westchester, got things up and running “incredibly quickly,” he said.
With the initial response behind them, Con Ed and other Northeastern utilities mapped out a years-long storm hardening plan that continues today.
That focus on resilience -- as well as the timing of Hurricane Maria so close to Sandy’s five-year anniversary -- led to comparisons between New York and Puerto Rico.
New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has visited the island three times and continues to consult closely on restoration efforts. A mutual aid agreement sent hundreds of workers from the state to assist in restoration. And New York utilities felt their engineers were equipped to help get the island's grid back up and running, namely because of their experience with Sandy.
“We are well prepared and uniquely qualified to help them restore power,” said Gil Quiniones, CEO at the New York Power Authority (NYPA). “This is what we do every year -- there’s always a storm.”
But Puerto Rico’s uniquely devastated grid, topography and infrastructure have all presented New York crews with new challenges. Even after weathering a storm like Sandy, the situation in Puerto Rico is anything but simple for utility crews.
In Old San Juan
Crews from New York landed in Puerto Rico to assist engineers from PREPA, the island's utility, almost immediately after Hurricane Maria passed. Under a mutual aid agreement, there are now over 450 New York utility workers there, most working in Old San Juan.
While Price and Quiniones both said their experiences with Sandy prepped them for work in Puerto Rico, Con Ed’s Puerto Rico incident manager, Orville Cocking, said working in Puerto Rico has been “humbling.”
Orville Cocking, Con Ed's Puerto Rico incident manager, is responsible for many of the New York crews deployed to the island.
Some of the work in Puerto Rico is comparable to restoration post-Sandy.
“The work is pretty similar: Get poles back in the ground, bury them deep so they’re more resistant to storms, and put the wire back on the poles, put the transformers back on the poles,” said Price. “Once you get authorization -- pick up customers.”
There are major differences, however.
The overhead, radial distribution system looked familiar to New York crews, as did the equipment and the voltage. But the installation of Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure is entirely unique from New York’s system.
In Old San Juan, for instance, the archeological significance of the colonial-era district means poles can’t be dug into the ground. Instead, they’re placed high up on rooftops, which in some cases had been made unstable by the storm.
“We would never see anything like that in New York,” said Quiniones. There, poles are buried or embedded in the pavement of streets and sidewalks.
Instead of using bucket or line trucks to work from the street, which are at times too narrow for trucks, Price and Cocking described working within individual buildings using ladders or contracted crane operators to reach poles. That involved anchoring damaged buildings and employing tour guides as translators between crews and the crane operators.
New York crews also had difficulty navigating streets filled with concrete detritus from downed structures. Parts of Puerto Rico have concrete power poles, whereas New York uses wood. (Maria was so strong it brought concrete poles down.) New York crews weren't able to lift the heavy poles, so workers had to rely on cranes in those instances, too.
“Each job took a lot of thought and effort,” said Price.
Despite the unfamiliar challenges, the New York contingent said many post-Sandy practices are applicable in Puerto Rico.
Price said he is very impressed with PREPA’s engineers, but did notice differences in procedures. When he first arrived, he was greeted with a 185-page book of PREPA’s standards. After Price had some more help with translating, he discovered that Con Ed’s standards were stricter. When practical, line workers have been repairing the grid to Con Ed’s standards, said Price and Cocking.
The two utilities also differed in their monitoring of poles. According to Price and Cocking, PREPA didn’t have a numbering system to help track which poles were being worked on. That made it difficult for the many different mutual aid and local crews working to coordinate, so Con Ed shared its mapping and tracking system.
“One thing we noticed earlier on is they were a little looser with us in terms of communication and log out, tag out,” said Price, referring to a pole-logging system. “We ran our own little control center down there to keep the process as tight as possible.”
Johnny Price, a Con Ed section manager of the Staten Island overhead, worked in Puerto Rico for 20 days in November.
Price stressed the importance of taking breaks -- a difficult task when the situation on the island is so dire.
“You have to pace yourself; you need to make people go to sleep so they can be useful the next day,” he said. “You might be helping, but you're also a danger in your 19th or 20th hour of work.”
That mentality will only become more important.
"The PREPA engineers and lineman have been working pretty much for 80 days straight to try to get the power back," he added. "They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them, too.”
A long haul
According to Quiniones, New York will continue to play a key role in the rebuild process. He said Gov. Cuomo’s team and NYPA are helping to flesh out the $94 billion plan for federal relief that Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló submitted in mid-November.
“We all need to take a long view,” said Quiniones. “The goal is to figure out how they can build back better.”
To that end, NYPA and PREPA have formed a working group that includes Con Ed, Long Island Power Authority, Southern California Edison (because of its work on distribution automation and use of renewables and distributed energy resources, according to Quiniones), the Electric Power Research Institute, Smart Electric Power Alliance, the Department of Energy, and national laboratories Brookhaven, Pacific Northwest, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Even with that deep lineup of energy innovators, the path will be long. Quiniones noted that Long Island Power Authority and Con Ed are still modernizing and hardening the grid five years after Sandy.
Quiniones rattled off a list of "basic hardening" measures, such as relocating and elevating substations, installing flood walls, putting some circuits underground, bundling conductors, and standardizing voltage at 13 kV. He said the island will ultimately have to decentralize its grid.
“This is going to be a long haul,” said Quiniones. “It’s probably going to take a decade.”