Remote Vieques Island presents unique challenges for DTE crews

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The beauty and solitude of the tiny island of Vieques is what draws tourists to visit and many mainlanders to stay. But then Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept across this little spit of land eight miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, stripping bare the trees, destroying hotels and restaurants and knocking out power to the 10,000 or so people who live here.  

DTE Energy is one of just a few energy companies from the mainland that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has asked to help restore power to Vieques.  

Here’s a snapshot of what DTE’s 16 linemen working on the island have encountered. 

Juggling logistics and hunting for materials 

Logistics on Vieques are unique. For DTE Energy’s Puerto Rico incident commander, John Wagner, it was like a big game of chess. He had to figure out how to ship DTE’s bucket trucks, pickups and other equipment on a barge from Fajardo, Puerto Rico to Vieques. Then he had to arrange for lodging, food, laundry and security – and he had to buy tickets for the crews to take the barge to get there.  

Wagner says the hardest part has been getting enough material to the island to make an impact on the customers.  For two days, the seas were too high for the barge to sail and DTE had to wait to deliver much-needed transformers to the crews.  

“It feels different here,” Wagner said as he drove from the one end of the island to the other to check on his crews. “Everything is a little more challenging here. This is our bread and butter, though. We’re good at changing on the fly. That’s what we do back home and it’s no different here.” 

Mitchell Wolfrom, district engineer for PREPA, lived his entire life on Vieques. He was afraid to go back to his island and witness the destruction after the hurricanes hit.  But now, he knows it’s starting to get better. 

“I feel like I’m the luckiest person in PREPA with the DTE crews. I sincerely feel that way,” Wolfrom said. “I really appreciate the work that you’ve done down here. Even when we don’t have the materials to supply to DTE, you guys have found a way.” 

Arrival on island “God’s work” for one Michigan native 

Andy Sharpeta, born in Livonia, Mich. and raised in Ohio, started the island’s only English-language church just a few weeks before the hurricanes hit. He was drawn to minister to the large English-speaking population on Vieques, and says the timing of his arrival was God’s work. He and his family jumped right in to help the residents after the hurricanes, volunteering at a shelter for hurricane survivors and at the local hospital.  

“We were just thrown into the middle of it. It’s been a wonderful experience being here with the Puerto Rican people,” said Sharpeta, whose wife and four young children are with him on the island. “We thank DTE for being here and helping us along. This has given everyone a boost of encouragement to repair our island.”  

Sharpeta has a special connection to DTE, as two of his cousins, Jim and John McClaran, are part of the energy company’s contingent on Vieques.  

“What are the odds of DTE from Michigan coming to Vieques, Puerto Rico to help on this island?  When I heard they were coming, I was just floored. They are doing a wonderful job.” 

Interacting with the locals a highlight for two brothers 

The McClaran brothers have gone on many mutual assistance trips in their 13 years with DTE – but certainly Puerto Rico is the farthest they’ve traveled to help. 

“I never imagined I’d be crossing an ocean for work but I’m very happy to be here and be a part of it,” John McClaran said. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity that DTE would send us here. I’m also thankful to be here with my Local 17 brothers and sisters.” 

Interacting with the residents has been one of the highlights of their work on Vieques.  

“Every time we get a chance to, even with the language barrier, we want to talk to the residents. They want to give us food, water, trinkets. They don’t have much, but they want to share, and you can just see their gratitude for us being here,” Jim McClaran said. “Today is a great feeling when you actually get them turned on. They see the hope when you’re here on the street, but you can see them disappointed when at the end of the day you drive away and the work’s still not done. But days like this, it’s a big boost for them. They’re excited, they get to go into a room and flip a switch and see the lights go on. It’s very cool.” 

Once power is restored at one preschool, parents can keep working 

At Escuela Juanita Rivera Albert, a preschool serving children from ages 2 months – 6 years, they have had just enough fuel to power their generator until 2 p.m. each day. The school lost power when Hurricane Irma swept through in early September. Since then, the school had to close early each day to conserve energy. Finally, DTE Energy trucks rolled into the town of Esperanza, restoring power – and providing a lifeline to working parents who count on the school to take care of their children during the day.  

“We are crying of happiness because I’m a worker and I need to work,” one parent said. “I’m very thankful.”   

Local hotels and restaurants grateful for the business DTE crews bring 

The El Blok Hotel is a popular choice for brides and grooms from the mainland looking for a unique destination wedding location. The hotel suffered serious damage in the hurricanes and is busy rebuilding to prepare for what it hopes will still be a busy tourism season. In the meantime, they are grateful to have relief organizations, including DTE Energy linemen, stay with them. 

“Fortunately, we were very, very lucky to have great crews come in and stay with us and really help us get back on our feet,” said Laine Gorman, general manager of the locally-owned hotel. “Every person that’s here, every dollar spent in our businesses means more people back to work. … For every dinner that’s served, that’s money in a server’s pocket, and that means that money goes right back into our economy. It’s spent at other restaurants and bars, in the grocery stores. People are able to pay their rent and have some little bit of normalcy to get back to our way of life.” 

Gorman is from New Orleans – where she survived Hurricane Katrina – and has been on Vieques for seven years. She hasn’t had power at her own residence for six months, and it’s been trying at times. 

“When people think about what power is, when we talk to our friends and family back home, they think that means lighting a lamp in the room or turning on a fan or having hot coffee. But it’s much more than that. It has to do with our cell phone towers and internet, the way you pump your gas – everything needs power. It’s really affected our lives,” Gorman said. “For those who are facing life and death situations, it’s been a huge financial burden to either obtain a generator and gas it or to rely on others to give you those things.” 

She’s appreciative of DTE traveling so far to help her adopted home. 

“It’s really morale-boosting for us. You’ll see people cheering as the trucks go by. It means a lot to us because this is helping us get our lives back in order, so long after the storm.”  

Restoring power is just the beginning of how these workers help local community 

When DTE’s team first arrived on Vieques, they saw some children riding around on bicycles that had seen better days. John Wagner, the incident commander, watched one child struggle to pump air in his tires at a local dive and sports shop. The image of the young boy and the pride he had in his old bike stuck with Wagner.  

Back on the main island of Puerto Rico, he mentioned to some other DTE employees that he wanted to buy the child a new bike. They were touched by his story and suddenly he had enough money for a shopping spree at the local Walmart.  

On his next trip from the main island of Puerto Rico to Vieques, Wagner came with six shiny new bicycles. He delivered them to a surprised manager at the shop where he first saw the little boy. It turns out, the general manager is a volunteer at the local Boys and Girls Club, where they have a bike program for the kids that was developed post-hurricanes. 

“It’s amazing to see a group that came down to help and serve do this. I was just stunned. DTE is already here, taking time away from your home, your life, your family back in the states to come and spend time here and help us get back to normal,” said Angie Hernandez, general manager of Black Beard Sports. “And then to just show up with bikes for the kids is going to be such a delight for them. They have worked so hard with building with what they had, which were not in the best of condition. And then seeing these beautiful, colorful bikes in a range of sizes – their eyes are going to just light up.”