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TVA crew makes more than electrical connections in Puerto Rico

Restoring power to the devastated island connects electrical workers with its people and restores faith and builds friendships.

Posted: Jul. 9, 2018 9:52 PM
Updated: Jul. 9, 2018 10:55 PM

It's been almost ten months since hurricane Maria all but destroyed the island of Puerto Rico. The strong category four storm made landfall on September 10, 2017. Maria's 155 mile-per-hour winds laid waste to the island's landscape, killed dozens, and destroyed the electrical grid.

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Thousands of power company workers from around the U.S. descended on the commonwealth to help rebuild the infrastructure. A local crew from the Tennessee Valley Authority was among them. Even a full four month after Maria hit, half the island was still without power.

Transmission civil design engineer Jeff Phillips remembers arriving. "Trees across roads. Roads washed out. Powerlines and poles down all over the place. Obviously, they got the cities back up first, but most of the rural areas were still pretty devastated."

They got straight to work; fourteen-hour days for six weeks. Fighting heat and humidity, a language barrier, the jungle and everything that comes with it. Tough work but rewarding in ways you can't measure with a paycheck. With each new electrical connection, a new personal connection was made.

"I mean, the kids just partying and dancing. The same thing for just whole communities. Because most time when we turn the power on it wasn't just to one house, it was to a whole community at a time. They really appreciated our help," said Phillips.

What started as a job, quickly became a mission - even a calling - especially when the crew heard about a teenager named Javier. His serious medical condition requires power to run a ventilator. For five months, his family had been desperately scrounging gas to fuel a generator.

"And his family had basically put all their money and effort into keeping him alive," Phillips recalled.

Javier became a priority. Crews installed new poles, relocated lines, and within 10 days they had power to his house.

"(HIs) mother especially was crying and hugging me. The father was crying and hugging on me. I mean just the whole family, rejoicing constantly," said Phillips. "There again, that definitely made the whole trip worth it."

For Phillips and his crew, those are the connections that matter. Yes, poles and wire and transformers can make life more comfortable, but it's the personal connections that make life worth living. And if Javier's family ever needs anything, Phillips says, "They've got my home phone number."

See more pictures from their time on Puerto Rico here.

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