Hurricane Maria has had a lasting effect on Puerto Rico. Nearly six months after the storm struck the island, damage remains widespread, and nearly a half-million people still are without power.

The dire situation prompted dozens of utility companies from around the United States to pitch in to help their fellow Americans.  One of those companies is Salt River Project, the Valley utility known as SRP. Its eight-person team returned last week to Arizona, where they were met by eager family members they hadn’t seen in a month.

SRP dispatched the command group to Puerto Rico for 30 days. Their mission was to direct about 250 utility workers, hired as contractors, to restore power to the rugged, rainy island. SRP led the effort to distribute materials to contractors on the northeastern part of the island, in Carolina, Fajardo, and Canóvanas.

Jesus Rodriguez, a supervisor with SRP who led the distribution-line maintenance effort, described the damage on the island as shocking.

“I was overwhelmed at first,” he said. “ ‘Wow’ was my first reaction. I’ve never seen so much destruction, as far electrical grid is concerned.”

Rodriguez and his team tried to salvage what they could, then had to wait for new materials before they could begin work.

The challenges they faced were rigorous. It rained almost every day, which slowed the entire process, and the mountainous terrain was physically exhausting.

But the experience, Rodriguez said, was worthwhile. Some of the residents in Carolina had been without power for more than 120 days. Every time the electricity was restored in a neighborhood, residents erupted in cheers.

“They were so happy,” he recalled. “Cheering in the streets, hugging, offering to cook us meals, just very thankful.”

Jon Beauregard, a manager for SRP, said working on the island was a life-changing experience.

“We gave them the light,” he said. “And that’s what we heard over and over from people in the field is, ‘Thank you for bringing the light back to us.’ ”

The result was an emotional experience shared by them and the people of Puerto Rico.

“They’ve been out of power for months, and they come out celebrating and just happy,” Beauregard said. “You hear music coming out of one house cause the radio was on. And then people come running out into the street and they’re crying and hugging the utility workers.”

Because of the work of SRP and other utility companies, more than 50 percent of power on the island had been restored by the time they left. Rodriguez and Beauregard said that they left Puerto Rico better than they found it, which brings them joy.

“We went there for the people,” Beauregard said. “This wasn’t about my mission, this was an opportunity that my company allowed me to help the greater good.”

The most recent update from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said more than 75 percent of customers – about 1.1 million people – now have power. However, that still leaves nearly 400,000 Puerto Ricans in the dark.

The job isn’t over yet.


Story by ADRIANA DE ALBA, Cronkite News