Disaster Response and Mutual Aid

Hurricane Maria hits already reeling Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico

As the people in the U.S. Virgin Islands were starting to repair and rebuild after Hurricane Irma, yet another huge storm — the formidable Maria, a Category 5 — headed straight for the island of St. Croix on Tuesday evening, Sept. 19.

Irma, a Category 5 when it hit the Virgin Islands earlier this month, stripped the islands of St. Thomas and St. John of the lush vegetation they are famous for, and now it appeared that Maria was about to give the same treatment to St. Croix.

Communications lines were down on Wednesday, Sept. 20, after Maria’s passage.

“The Virgin Islands has seen incredible damage,” said Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services for the American Public Power Association, on Wednesday morning.

After decimating the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday morning as a Category 4 storm. It had been weakened slightly, compared to what it was when it hit St. Croix, but it remained an extremely powerful storm. It launched itself on Puerto Rico with pounding rain and ferociously howling winds of up to 155 miles per hour. The rivers on the island were reported to be rising fast.

Earlier in the month, Hurricane Irma had given Puerto Rico a glancing blow but on Wednesday, Maria hit the island head on. This was the first time since 1932 — more than 80 years — that a storm of this magnitude had directly hit Puerto Rico.

“This is an unprecedented atmospheric system,” said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello on Tuesday. “We need to keep in mind that we must also protect the lives of these first responders.” He said that emergency teams would be unable to respond once winds reached 50 mph.

“We’re going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico,” the governor told the Associated Press.

The National Hurricane Center said that Maria would bring “life-threatening wind, storm surge and rainfall impacts” to the island. Forecasters said to expect “catastrophic damage” from winds to 155 mph, including “structural damage to sturdy buildings, some with complete roof and wall failures.” The hurricane center said that “severe injury is possible in less than a strong structure” and that “locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months.” It also predicted rainfall amounts of 12 to 18 inches in Puerto Rico, with 25 inches or more possible in isolated areas.

An additional five to 10 inches were forecast for the Virgin Islands, with 15 inches in isolated areas.

The NHC said late Wednesday morning that a dangerous storm surge, “accompanied by large and destructive waves,” could raise water levels by as much as 10 to 15 feet above ordinary levels in some locations. Tides were predicted to reach up to nine feet above normal in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The wind from Maria was “blowing hard and screaming,” said one woman living near the capital of San Juan, as reported by the New York Times.

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that FEMA is well positioned to help in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but said, “It’s going to be a very frustrating event to get the power back on.”

Both of these U.S. territories own and operate public power utilities: the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

All of Puerto Rico was without electricity by midday on Wednesday, said Puerto Rico's emergency management director, Abner Gomez, as reported by the Washington Post.

“Definitely Puerto Rico — when we can get outside — we will find our island destroyed," Gomez said at a midday press conference on Sept. 20.

"The information we have received is not encouraging,” Gomez said. “It's a system that has destroyed everything it has had in its path."

President Trump directed FEMA to work with the Department of Homeland Security on relief efforts for Puerto Rico and authorized FEMA to provide funding for recovery costs.

FERC commissioners praise industry response to hurricanes

At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s monthly meeting on Sept. 20, commissioners offered praise for the power industry’s response to the recent hurricanes that hit states in the Southeast, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur voiced her appreciation for “all the people who are working tirelessly to restore power.” She said that “for anyone who has anything to do with electricity, keeping the lights on is job one and people are at their finest after a major storm.”

LaFleur said, “I especially want to applaud the mutual aid and the cooperation among industry, both IOUs and public power, and with state, federal and local government, as well as first responders.”

FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said that “so many brave and hardworking utility workers from across the country have stepped in to help following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.”

He said that “these utilities and their employees have and will continue to play a crucial role in helping Texas and the Southeast get back into operation following these devastating storms. Crews from all over the country are assisting in this effort.”

Chatterjee noted that as part of this effort, FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation recently issued a joint statement “to encourage mutual assistance and assure companies they wouldn’t be penalized for helping to restore service.”

In addition, FERC granted an extension of time on filing deadlines “so that people and companies could focus on recovery.”  

Commissioner Robert Powelson praised the outreach that Chatterjee “has done with NERC on a very sensitive issue that was so important to the markets and the safety and the restoration efforts.”

The Washington Post reported Sept. 20 that Eric Blake, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center, said in a tweet that Maria is the third Category 4 to strike the U.S. in the same season, following Harvey and Irma, which he said is “unprecedented in the modern era.”

The National Weather Service in San Juan reported rainfall rates of as much as 5 to 7 inches per hour, the Post said. Puerto Rico’s weather radar stopped operating as the storm came ashore, transmitting its last image around 5:50 a.m., the newspaper said.

On St. Croix early Wednesday morning, sustained winds reached 106 mph and gusts were reported up to 137 mph, according to the Post.

Irma update

On Sept. 18, the Florida Municipal Electric Association reported that 99 percent of the state’s public power electric utility customers had had their power restored following the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma. FMEA said that approximately 18,500 public power electric customers remained without power in Alachua, Duval, Marion, Monroe and Polk counties.

By Sept. 19, the number of public power outages was close to zero, except on hard-hit Key West, where restoration efforts were in full swing. Keys Energy Services estimated that electricity had been restored to close to 76 percent of its customers as of Tuesday.

This week, 31 employees of Austin Energy in Austin, Texas, were headed back home after driving about 1,000 miles to Florida to help the Jacksonville Electric Authority restore electric service after heavy damage and flooding caused by Hurricane Irma.

First, Austin had to deal with its own storm. After Tropical Storm Harvey hit Texas, Austin Energy restored power to more than 79,000 customers, replaced 50 poles and responded to more than 2,000 calls about low wires, downed wires, tree limbs on a wire or arcing wires. Then it sent the crews to Florida to help JEA recover from Irma. The crews drove as a convoy in pickups, bucket trucks and boom trucks/derricks with small cranes for setting poles. The utility posted a video of its crews getting ready for the trip, and hitting the road.