Despite his 38 years experience working for a utility that has been battered by major storms, Ray Homburger had never seen or dealt with anything like the conditions he encountered in Puerto Rico.
The Wading River man, 61, a customer experience manager with PSEG-LI, said he wasn’t prepared for what he would witness when he volunteered to help storm recovery efforts on the Caribbean Island. Months after Hurricane Maria, the 10th most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, struck the island as a Category Four storm on Sept. 20, Puerto Rico still struggles mightily to recover from the hurricane’s devastating impacts.
Homburger recently returned from a month in Puerto Rico with a deployment of more than 100 PSEG employees. Over the years, he has worked as a power plant operator and as a member of emergency restoration teams — in a prior position, he was responsible for power restoration in areas of the East End. From Hurricane Gloria to Superstorm Sandy, Homburger has long experience in storm recovery.
Still, Puerto Rico was a world apart — even 100 days after Hurricane Maria knocked out the U.S. territory’s aged power grid and left millions without electricity or drinking water.
Homburger and his team arrived on the island Dec. 12. Nearly one-third of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents were still without power.
“People are surviving on a few gallons of gas a day to keep small generators running so they can have refrigeration,” he said.
“Daily it was a very emotional experience,” he said. “People would stop their cars to roll down their windows and say thank you — thank you for not forgetting us, one woman told me.” Homburger said he never encountered negativity. Residents were all so grateful and gracious, offering workers water and food.
“The work environment was pretty brutal,” Homburger said. The teams worked everywhere from cities to mountainous jungles, 16 hours a day, seven days a week. The storm’s fierce winds defoliated much of the island, so daily tropical downpours turned the hillsides into rivers. Road conditions changed every day because of it. A road that was there yesterday might not be there today because of a mudslide, he said.
He worked on damage assessment, walking several miles each day to inspect the tattered lines and equipment, taking and geo-tagging photos to create a detailed map of the system and damages that need to be repaired, “from start to finish.”
Homburger saw “transformers in swimming pools, houses crushed by concrete towers, equipment just washed away by floodwaters and wires all over the place.” The system has a lot of antiquated equipment that was desperately in need of upgrading and repair even before the storm struck — “some very old style fuses, wooden cross arms on poles that were so old and decayed you could literally see through them,” he said. Transformer casings were rusted, many of them leaking oil, he said.
The road to recovery has been a long and difficult slog. All workers, equipment, trucks and supplies have to get there by boat or plane, making the recovery response that much more difficult and slow. “They need so much material it will be quite some time before the island is fully restored,” he said. Today at least 17 percent of the island is still without power, according to government data.
Despite the devastation and destruction, the Puerto Rican people remain “very warm-hearted and welcoming,” Homburger said.
To bring local children some holiday joy, PSEG crews “on Christmas Day went into a Walgreens and bought all the toys they had,” Homburger said. “We bought about $1,400 worth of toys to give to the children of a small village on Jan.6, which is Three Kings Day.”
Traveling to Puerto Rico to help with the recover effort— the first time he’s ever done something like that — was a life-changing experience for the career utility worker. It was “very humbling,” he said. “It taught me to be thankful for what we have right here on Long Island.”
“Over the years, we’ve had crews from other states come to help us with recovery and it meant so much to us,” Homburger said. “I wanted to help do the same.”
PSEG-LI is maintaining crews numbering about 50 people in Puerto Rico as part of the recovery effort organized by NYPA under a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, PSEG-LI spokesperson Elizabeth Flagler said.
Photos courtesy of Ray Homburger/PSEG