by Katheryn Laible
Photographs by Raymond Homburger
Same Theme – Different Story
Ray Homburger is the kind of guy who, when winter comes, generally welcomes it with open arms and heads straight for the mountains with his skis. He has also been known to spend New Year’s helping light up the world by beating records for fireworks displays with the Grucci’s in Dubai. While this year has been very different, it, too, has been all about mountains and lights.
From December 12, 2017 until January 8, 2018, Ray worked 16 hour days, 7 days a week in the US Territory of Puerto Rico assessing the power situation.
“I volunteered to assist back in September. However, our first group for this effort for NYPA from PSEG Long Island departed in early November and I was disappointed to not be joining them. I just kind of forgot about it until they asked what I was doing for Christmas and New Years. The assignment duration also included my wife and daughter’s birthdays. Great. However… I knew they would be understanding … I hoped!”
First – A Search Party
As they were getting acclimated to the daily routine in Puerto Rico, a good friend in NY texted Ray with a request. She had a friend (a fellow teacher on L.I.) who had family in Puerto Rico, an older Aunt; a "Titi,” whom no one on the mainland had been able to reach for weeks. Cell reception is still “hit or miss” even months after the storm. He was going to be very, very busy and didn’t know if he’d be able to help, but he offered to do what he could.
GPS led him and a few crew mates to a road with the same name that the woman had given to his friend. Ray spoke very little Spanish, “I can greet people, locate the restroom, and add an ‘o’ to the end of words, which sometimes works, but that’s about as far as it goes.”
The guard of this gated community spoke no English. Still, they managed to figure out that while the street name was right, that number didn’t exist. Eventually another guard, who spoke more English, arrived. They figured out that there was another street with the same name about three miles away.
“It was a looooong three miles,” recalls Ray. “When we arrived at the second street in the same town, with the same name – there were no house numbers. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just drove down the road slowly shouting ,“Señora Cortes! Señora Cortes!’”
As luck would have it, an elderly woman walking down the street turned and said, “¿Sí?"
“Colie from Nueva York sent me. Are you ok?”
The woman burst into tears. Suddenly, the language barrier wasn’t so high. He got out of the car and gave her a great big hug.
“That was day 5. Basically, the whole month was kind of like that.”
The Relief and Recovery Effort
Ray’s service was part of The New York Power Authority (NYPA) effort. In addition to Ray’s company, PSEG Long Island, the NY Power Authority, National Grid, Con Edison, Orange & Rockland and Avongrid are involved in the NY State Damage Assessment effort. It involves approximately 28 utility workers bringing together many years of experience from across the state, who bonded over the course of their month long assignments to assist our neighbors in Puerto Rico.
“PSEG Long Island additionally contributed 50 linemen and contractor crews and vehicles, but I was part of what fell under the NYPA contribution to perform detailed damage assessment.”
“It was the 10th biggest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. Probably the worst thing anyone’s ever seen in Puerto Rico.” This Wikipedia article offers details.
“You saw the damage after Sandy on the South Shore first hand, right? Picture that level of destruction, but across the whole island. Add in mountains, lots of simple structures, and an outdated, apparently completely unregulated electric system.” said Ray, “That’s what I saw, and I didn’t get there until months after the storm.”
He stayed in the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar. Thanks to a significant contribution from Caterpillar Generators, there was electricity and even the one working TV that Ray saw throughout his entire stay. Most folks on the island who had some generator power were using it for essentials and to help neighbors, if they could. Normally, the hotel is a popular tourist resort. Now, it has been transformed to house a continually changing cast of approximately 500 line workers, contractor crews, the Army Corp of Engineers and others.
“You learn pretty quickly to spot the ones who just got there, the ones who’ve been at it for a few weeks, and the ones who really need to go home. Great people! All of them are a little shocked.”
To do the work itself, Ray and his co-workers were given a rainbow of Jeeps, “It was cool, because people got to know us by the colors, not only that we were the guys there to help, but which guys we were. Word got around, 'The purple Jeep is from Long Island in Nueva York'”
“The vehicles were great, but often not enough. On top of the initial damage from Maria, the storm wiped out most of the vegetation in the hills. As a result, every time it rains – which was about 30 minutes to two hours almost every day – there are huge mudslides. One day you have a road. Next day…not so much. It was an adventure.”
Powering Puerto Rico
You can learn a little bit about the grid itself here, here, and here. Electricity first came to Puerto Rico as a private hydroelectric lighting system in 1893. The system of diverse local and regional companies was then unified with New Deal aspirations as one grid under the name Puerto Rico Water Resources Authority (PRWRA) in 1941. In 1979, they changed the name to Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), largely because petroleum had by then become 98% of the power source.
PREPA has never been a great system, practically or economically. Too often, it has been subject to political whims and gross mismanagement. It is plagued by debt. Island-wide power outages have occurred on several occasions. The current blackout is the worst in US history.
“It’s a big mess,” says Ray, “and without a game plan, it would stay that way. We now have a very good process in place to rebuild smartly. It breaks our hearts that these good folks still are without power, but they are very resilient, tolerant and realize it will still take a while.”
The patience and gratitude of the people of Puerto Rico is something he repeatedly comes back to. It is beyond anything he has ever experienced.
The Job at Hand
The Island was broken down into regions for grid assessment. Ray’s team focused primarily on the San Juan area, the territory’s capital and most important seaport.
The job was to start at a substation and inspect each pole site out to the end of each circuit. In an apparent effort to avoid corruption, Puerto Rico assessments must be painstakingly detailed, itemizing the state of a 50’ pole, transformer, fuses and 400’ of wire. A phone app called Theodolite enables photos to be taken with detailed GPS information on the picture to back up the claims. Given the age, and patchwork assembly of the system, notes were also made as to whether the issues at each site were storm-caused or otherwise. All of this must be fully detailed to allow FEMA to process the claims and send the required equipment to repair and rebuild the system.
Ray was well-equipped for this mission. He has extensive experience with power grids, and is happy to explain precisely how they work to anyone who takes an interest. This job was unlike anything he’d ever seen. In addition to ancient, already weather beaten equipment rendered to rubble, the system is complicated by the unregulated, piecemeal way in which it was crafted.
“On Long Island, each circuit has a pole line going from start to finish, typically with only the one unique circuit on the pole line. In Puerto Rico, often three circuits can exit on one strand of poles and branch out – wherever. You were often following the lines strictly by walking so you could remain focused as lines crossed over one another, changed attachment positions form one pole to another and then they were all down in one heap on the ground. There are places where the poles predate the concrete structures that now stand on either side – I don’t know how they’ll get them out of there, much less put new ones in! Sometimes, you can’t even see the pole because of the overgrowth”
With skill and patience, Ray’s team was able to complete their assessment of the capital city. They were then sent inland to the Caguas area in the central mountainous region. The rugged terrain multiplied the challenges of access and assessment. It was not uncommon for people to come directly down the overgrown hillsides to let the crews know they were there, where their roads and electric poles used to be, and to offer food and water to the Team members, who were not used to working in such humid conditions day in and day out.
Ray cannot overstate the power of this experience, “People say this all the time. Now, I think, I get it. We REALLY need to be so thankful for everything we have at home. The people here are so appreciative and thankful for our efforts - EVEN AFTER WE EXPLAIN it will still be a while before material and crews can get to this mountain hillside location. One circuit we were on here had 188 major damage locations. Another had 90...yet when we tell them that it may be another 6-8 weeks at best they say, ‘Thank you for helping us.’”
“I swear this will make me try to be a better person.”
A History of Giving
Ray was not exactly uncharitable to begin with. Nor was his service to Puerto Rice limited to his month of 16-hour work days. A graduate of the Leadership Huntington Class of 2013, Ray has long served Habitat for Humanity. He is also a board member of the Moonjumpers Charitable Foundation, which raises fund for children, families, war veterans and charitable and not-for-profit organizations, as well as a proud member of the Good Fellows of Suffolk County, which empowers members to make cash donations to those in need as they see fit.
Ray saw fit to offer all kinds of help. Shortly after he located the woman’s aunt, Ray and his crew mates met a stray puppy living on the grounds of a substation. They befriended “Susie” and, like they did with many of the creatures they encountered, made sure to save their leftovers so she could eat. He reached out to his cousin, Carolyn, in NY, who in turn reached out to rescue groups to find one in Puerto Rico.
The "Sato Project" has had over 1200 dog rescue requests since the storms. Ray sent in Susie's pics. Friends had to smile at Ray’s first “Christmas miracle” when, on December 23rd he proudly announced, “...guess who WAS JUST RESCUED!!!” Susie will be coming soon to Brooklyn, where her new “forever home” awaits.
Soon after that, Ray brought the generosity of the organizations he serves into play. Upon witnessing the devastation children of the Island had experienced, he and his crew mates were moved to buy all the toys from a local Walgreens store in San Juan on Christmas Day. Those following his journey on Facebook got to see him report:
“The best Christmas ever!”
“Thanks to The Good Fellows, The Moonjumpers and PSEG Long Island...we connected with a charitable org in Puerto Rico that needed help for children in a remote village near San Juan.
We just donated over $1400 worth of toys and necessities (diapers, shampoo, soaps) to provide a little merriment for our neighbors in Puerto Rico!
Merry Christmas to all our friends and family back home!
They gave some toys to families in the immediate vicinity, then entrusted the rest to the local group who promised to deliver them to places in need up in the hills. They were happy to be of service and never expected to see them again.
Flash forward to a major holiday, El Dia de los Reyes – The Day of the Kings, or Three Kings Day, which on January 6th celebrates the arrival of the wise men who followed the star to the Baby Jesus in order to present their gifts and honor the newborn King. Among other aspects of this rich celebration, this is the day when most Puerto Rican children receive their presents.
Ray and his crew were on their next to last day, working in the mountains of Caguas, when they saw Melchor (representing Europe), Gaspar (representing Arabia) and Balthazar (representing Africa) approach. They broke to witness the celebration as children and their families came out to greet them. Folks from local community groups came after, bearing toys, water and other items donated to help make a rough year a little smoother. They recognized the toys they had purchased on Christmas, joined in the celebration, and then found the local church leaders and made an additional donation to assist in providing necessities.
“Seeing the children of Caguas come up the hillside toward the Three Kings, dressed in their Sunday best, all smiles on their faces as they received small toys or a coloring book was a very happy moment. As we soon realized, the homes they were coming up from had all been severely damaged by Maria. Most roofs were blue tarps. Neighbors and families were all helping one another to exist. Small generators ran extension cords from home to home. Often, clothes pins were attached to the extension cords so they could double as clothes lines! Yet, these children seemed to not have a care in the world. As we continued our survey work, the Team was suddenly a lot quieter. We all seemed to be suffering from 'dust in our eyes' as we realized how precious life really is, and what is really important.”
Ray will show you a picture of an enormous double rainbow, the first he’d ever seen, and another of clouds that evoked images of an angel shining down upon the battered Island. His face shows a mixture of concern and gratitude for these people he got to serve, people whom he hopes don’t have get any more accustomed to living on generators amid a broken and tattered system.
He says it one more time, “It was an eye opener to see how lucky we are on Long Island and in the States in general. We don’t realize how good we have it. These people aren’t taking anything for granted, and they’re making do the best they can. They gave us so much even though they have so little and we couldn’t promise them anything but a long wait. They are so thankful for any help they can get.”
We are grateful for their spirit and appreciate all you gave them, Ray. You, and everyone else out there lending a helping hand.
You give us hope.