Power Struggle

Teams Got Creative to Restore Puerto Rico's Storm-Ravaged Electrical Grid

When Hurricane Maria blew through Puerto Rico in September, every single home and business on the U.S. island lost power. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and its recovery program teams faced the daunting task of restoring Puerto Rico's antiquated power grid as soon as possible. “Our goal was to get the most lights turned on for the most people in the shortest time possible,” says Capt. Aaron Anderson, PMP, project manager, USACE, Portland, Oregon, USA.

USACE knew work to get the main power grid fully back online would take many months, however. So it launched a project to install “micro grids”: generators teams could quickly deploy to provide temporary power in areas where power from the regular grid was a long way off. Along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), Capt. Anderson's team identified the micro-grid sites in remote or mountainous areas. Schedules were highly fast-tracked.


“Once we showed up on the ground, the public's perception could be that a system would be immediately in place.”

—Capt. Aaron Anderson, PMP, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland, Oregon, USA

“We started execution almost at the same time we started planning,” he says. “But we also had to ensure we did things safely and correctly. We didn't want to rush into failure.”

Striking the right balance between speed and safety didn't always sit well with people affected by the storm—they wanted normal life to resume immediately. So USACE teams had to educate all stakeholders, from residents to contractors, about what the micro-grid project would entail and how long it might take. That could be unpleasant.

“Once we showed up on the ground, the public's perception could be that a system would be immediately in place,” Capt. Anderson says. In meetings with local community members to establish realistic expectations, his team had to be upfront that it could take weeks or even months for some areas to get the lights back on.

“It's difficult to tell people the hard truth of how long it could take. It's not the most fun part of being a project manager. But it's necessary: You have to bring all the stakeholders on board and set up the project for success.”


Utility poles destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico in September 2017


Attention to Detail

Complex team dynamics have necessitated that project managers step up to guide logistics and prevent scope creep. PREPA, for instance, lacked adequate materials and vehicles to quickly restore the devastated grid, which meant that many recovery projects have involved mainland-based U.S. contractors. In December, USACE awarded an US$831 million contract to Fluor Enterprises for power restoration work on the island. USACE project managers made sure that PREPA—which established a master plan for power restoration— didn't submit requests to Fluor that could steer its teams off track and beyond the scope of its contract. (PREPA has faced allegations of corruption and mismanagement following the hurricane.)

“Having USACE project managers work hand in hand with Fluor and PREPA ensured we had a good picture of what was going on,” Capt. Anderson says.

Like the USACE team, Foss Maritime saw the importance of working closely with contractors who found themselves in unfamiliar terrain. In December 2017, a consortium of U.S. public utilities led by FEMA hired Foss to transport 720 vehicles from the mainland to the island—by 15 January 2018. “It was a very tight timeline,” says Leiv Lea, PMP, director, project management, Foss Maritime, Seattle, Washington, USA.

The utility companies weren't familiar with marine transportation—its terminology or its contractual standards. “It was a challenge to make sure the utilities understood what would happen, what they were responsible for and what Foss was responsible for,” Mr. Lea says. Until the shipments left port, the Foss project team held daily teleconferences with members of the consortium to keep everyone in the loop.

Even with open lines of communication, the utilities' lack of familiarity with marine transportation became an issue in early January, when storms closed a port and delayed one Foss shipment from heading to Puerto Rico by nine days. Per the contract, utilities incurred an extra cost for any delay of more than three days that happened while in port. But rather than simply reminding the utilities of the contract's terms and sending an invoice, the team at Foss worked to address the client's frustration. One solution was to change the contract term on the return voyage to increase the number of days Foss would be responsible for any delay-related costs. “We wanted it to be good for business but also a good deal for our customer—a win-win,” Mr. Lea says.

Whatever It Takes

Foss' shipment project was critical because Hurricane Maria happened during a particularly hard-hitting hurricane season. Much of the restoration equipment from U.S. state-owned utilities already had been deployed to other areas, including the U.S. states of Florida and Texas, which were hit by different storms. “We faced a lack of materials to do the repairs and trouble getting those materials from the mainland to the island,” Capt. Anderson says.

As a result, the USACE team couldn't rely on its typical acquisition methods and suppliers. “We looked at any legal method to get materials to the island as quickly as possible,” Capt. Anderson says. For example, rather than ordering metal and wooden utility poles from its usual suppliers, his team found a vendor on the island that could make concrete utility poles. The team also salvaged any materials it could: If electricity poles had fallen but their insulators were still functional, his team reused them.

By the six-month anniversary of the storm in March, USACE and its contractors had restored power to 93 percent of PREPA customers. But the final stretch of restoration program work, in Puerto Rico's most remote and difficult locations, wasn't slated to be completed until May. “The last 5 percent will be the hardest of the whole mission,” Capt. Anderson says. —Novid Parsi

By March, contractors had restored power to 93 percent of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority customers.



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