Power. It's something many of us take for granted. When we lose it for, say, a couple hours, it's nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Well, imagine not having power for several months, or up to a year. Imagine not being able to cook, bathe or eat in your own home.
Now, imagine it's not just you, but all around you. Imagine the entire electrical infrastructure is destroyed, and you're left in the dark – with no indication when you'll be up and running again.
In September 2017, the island territory of Puerto Rico found itself awash in black. When crews arrived in October – specifically, a fleet of linemen and engineers from PowerSecure, a subsidiary of Southern Company – they were met with unprecedented damage and millions of people without power.
Indeed, it was a tall order for anyone. How do you put it all back together after such massive devastation? What do you say when one displaced family after another wants to know when they'll be able to return to their home?
As the emergency operations director for Georgia Power for 39 years, Aaron Strickland was all too familiar with the frustration and helplessness associated with power outages. But even Strickland, who's now senior vice president of client relations for PowerSecure, was disturbed by what he saw when he arrived in Puerto Rico in the days after Maria hit.
"When we first got there, it was completely black," Strickland recalled. "There was a lot of damage. Some areas you couldn't even get to unless you're a mountain climber."
As they began to assess the damage to the western side of the island, a region that's mostly rural and remote, it was glaringly evident that the restoration effort would reach far beyond turning the lights back on. In addition to restoring power, PowerSecure’s operation included full logistics, which involved feeding and housing the entire team. PowerSecure acted as a full-service provider – encompassing restoration, damage assessment, traffic control, food and housing.
PowerSecure has deployed its Damage Assessment Teams for every named storm to hit the U.S. in the past 8 years. For this storm, Strickland's crew began working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the early days of the response. Barges full of much-needed equipment and supplies arrived on the island, as well as additional personnel, including transmission and distribution, leadership and logistics.
And it was up to PowerSecure's team to coordinate the effort and make sure Puerto Rico's beleaguered citizens could resume life as they knew it.
"In the end, we maxed out 10 helicopters, which we used for putting up power lines and for transporting our teams into areas that we could not reach by any other means," he said. "Our folks didn't sit around. No matter what little materials they had or what time it was, they went out and figured out what they can do to make some improvement, even if it was just clearing the lines of debris, stripping old material for reuse, or clearing trees. They were determined to do something, anything, to make a positive impact."
In just the first four hours of restoration work, PowerSecure was able to bring back power to 2,800 residents.
Progress was slow but promising. But through it all, despite Puerto Rico's vast devastation from shore to shore, its citizens still didn't hesitate to show their gratitude – and their generosity – for the workers who came to their aid.
"The people we met down there were absolutely the nicest people in the world," Strickland recalled. "They didn't have much, they were going through so much, they had just lived through this horrible hurricane – but they still came out and brought food to my crew.
"And as the lights came on in one neighborhood after another after another," he continued, "they actually threw parties for us. It was kind of a bond that we developed with them."
By the time PowerSecure returned to the States in mid-May, power had been restored to approximately 98 percent of the island.
"I felt very, very good that we were able to help so many people," Strickland said. "There was a lot of devastation, sure. But there was also a lot of laughter, and celebration, and hope. I left there knowing we were able to make their lives better in some way."