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Austin Energy’s last employee returns from Puerto Rico

Wednesday, April 18, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

At 6:30 p.m. on April 16, Paul Vasquez, the superintendent of system operations at Austin Energy, announced at the Electric Utility Commission meeting that Austin Energy’s last employee had returned from the disaster reparation efforts that Austin had participated in on Puerto Rico.

After the catastrophic damage that Hurricane Maria caused in September of 2017, Puerto Rico was left without access to even the most basic amenities, including electricity. According to Smart Grid and System Operations Director Danny Ee, the damage to the power grid was so calamitous that 3.4 million residents were affected and there were multiple reports of people remaining for 81 days without power. Often, even those who had access to electricity only had it intermittently. “The devastating effects on the island were tremendous,” he told the commission.

On Oct. 31, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority requested mutual assistance from other American utilities to help them resurrect their system. Austin Energy was one of the utilities that answered the call and was assigned, along with two other electric utilities, to the Carolina region in the northeastern part of the island. There, the utility representatives installed an incident command structure from which they conducted their disaster relief efforts.

A total of 16 Austin Energy employees were deployed over a four-month period.

Vasquez explained that because of similarities in the previously existing electric infrastructure of this region to Austin’s, “We could essentially take our personnel and plug them in and they knew exactly what to do on the island.”

Puerto Rico’s mutual assistance request was federally regulated by the United States government, and those who went were required to restore the power and infrastructure to how it was before the hurricane hit.

Commission Chair Cary Ferchill said that he went on vacation to that part of the island 18 months ago, and he wondered how advanced the electric grid was that existed in that area before Hurricane Maria hit. “What I remember of that entire region is that it’s extremely remote,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Boyle questioned how restoring to the “previous” condition translated to the Carolina region of Puerto Rico. “I know that parts of Puerto Rico do not have power yet and that parts have intermittent power. Is that also true in the Carolina section?” he said.

According to Vasquez, they completed the repairs to the required federal specifications, and any outages that occur now that the team has left the region are restored as quickly as possible by those who are still on the ground.

Despite the difficulties associated with restoring the infrastructure, “We actually hit our target of complete restoration ahead of schedule,” Vasquez said. They completed restoration by mid-March instead of summer as they originally anticipated.

Due to the speed with which they completed the repairs, the government requested that Austin Energy move its efforts south to assist in the Caguas region. Caguas currently has 74 percent of the electric utility restored.

“How in the heck did you get it done as quickly as you did?” wondered Ferchill with admiration.

Ee explained that it was because the mission was not only to restore electricity but also to ensure the safety of the Puerto Rican citizens. “At Austin Energy, we’re good at that,” he said.

Over a round of applause from commissioners and the public, Ferchill congratulated Austin Energy on its herculean efforts. “We’re only as good as the people in this company, and you’ve made us all proud,” he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the costs that Austin Energy incurred for its help in this restoration effort.

Photo by Roosevelt Skerrit [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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