Linemen Chip Gent and Gordon Robinson were part of a national assistance program to help St. Croix restore electrical power following the destruction of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989. They find a third world country devoid of tourists, with many of the island's upper class gone, overwhelmed in its recovery efforts in the face of massive destruction.
Chip Gent and Gordon Robinson were two of the linemen from the Concord Municipal Light Plant who went to St. Croix following the destruction by Hurricane Hugo to help restore power. The hurricane occurred on September 9 and the first two linemen, Chip Gent and Fran Kiley, went to St. Croix October 12, Gordon Robinson and Neil Hathaway left for St. Croix two weeks later and returned November 12.
Chip - The St. Croix Power Authority was in contact with FEMA which is the Federal Emergency Management Authority and through them they contacted the NEPPA group which is New England Public Power. The NEPPA group of which Concord Light is a member consists of all municipals and small utilities around New England. They put a task force together consisting of 16 utilities and after all kinds of arrangements and red tape we got to St. Croix.
The day we got to St. Croix, a month after the storm, we left the airport in a convoy to go to quarters at the other end of the island and we were all in total shock with what we saw. I mean we were really shocked. We are never exposed to hurricanes to begin with of this magnitude especially in what you would consider a third world country. Outside of the tourist area St. Croix is a third world country. It certainly appears that way. To see the effect where there isn't the money that's in this country to repair, I mean the response in this country would be immediate, you wouldn't see this kind of thing lingering five weeks later. But it looked like clean up had hardly begun, trees across the road, every pole down, very few left standing and what was left standing really couldn't be used, no roofs on houses, everything was gone. People were living in boxes, literally living in boxes.
Gordon - They just didn't have the equipment to do it even if they wanted to. I'm sure they wanted to get out and clean it up but they didn't have the facilities and the equipment to deal with it.
Chip - They also aren't the high speed society that we are here. Everything in this area is based on speed, emergency type response. They were not prepared, they do everything slow to begin with much less rebuild an island.
We flew down on C5A military aircraft which as far as I knew
is the biggest transport plane in the world. Our group consisted
of four C5As two on two consecutive days. We were putting five
bucket trucks on each plane plus all the cargo and stock that we
were able to bring and 20 to 30 guys on each plane, which doesn't put a dent in the passenger space on the plane. That was one of the highlights of the trip. I had never been involved in anything with the military and I've always been kind of fascinated by it. To see one of these C5As, see how the team that stays with that plane, they go all over the world on it, it's not a different crew all the time, these guys were assigned to it and they are really efficient. In loading us they use it as a dry run in a military exercise, it's not a casual deal loading the plane - it's all military. They have every last inch of that truck weighed and cleaned and measured and they know exactly where on the plane each truck has to be for balance.
Gordon - When they loaded the plane, it was like they had a
stopwatch in how long it took them. They were so efficient. It
was really impressive to see how well organized our military is
because once that plane hit the runway, the ramp went down. Replacements were coming in for us from Texas, and their trucks
were coming off and once their trucks were off, our trucks were
on. I mean there was no lag time. Within a period of, I think,
two hours to off load and load again and we were ready to go and
part of that time was waiting for clearance for take off. In St.
Croix that runway is not designed to handle a plane of that size
and the pilot was telling us at larger airports the pilot has a
little chance if something goes wrong to put on the brakes and
stop, when you leave this place you got one shot at it and that's
it, you go.
Matter of fact, they can't put a full load of fuel on it. The load of equipment that we put on was nothing in comparison to what they can put on.
Chip - When we loaded, we put 550,000 pounds of cargo on it, they put 350,000 pounds of fuel on it, and they could have taken another 300,000 pounds of cargo and fuel which they do in war time. They cut back the maximum loads during peace time and obviously in war time they put a few more tanks on it.
We were all so fascinated by the thing that in the course of the flight down we were all pumping the guys on the crew for stats and figures. The tail section is seven stories up. When we drove the truck up the ramp into the cargo hold, they would call each truck individually because they knew which one they wanted in this part of the cargo hold. Before we got out of the cab when that truck was driven on, we were just gathering our belongings to go upstairs, that truck had already been all chained down.
Gordon - They wouldn't let the driver out of the truck until it was all chained down, because I started to step out and the load master came over to me and said don't get out of the truck until I tell you to. The reason for it was that they don't want that truck to move, they don't want to damage the aircraft in any way so they tell you to sit there and keep your foot on the brake until they tie it all down with these chains and straps. These people were very professional.
Chip flew down on a regular air force plane, the crew that
was on our plane was all reservists. They do this on weekends.
These guys were very professional, in fact the load master was an
orthodontist and he flies all over the world. He says "Having a
hobby and getting paid for it, you can't beat it." He was all military, he wasn't civilian, he ran the whole show as far as loading. And then of course, the actual flight the pilot and co-pilot fly the plane but the man really in charge of the plane is the flight engineer. That was the man that knew exactly what everything in that plane was doing. He would sit there and monitor a massive amount of equipment.
Chip - It was chaos when we got there. It was confusion. When we got there, probably 10% of the island had been restored which was the basic downtown area, Christianstad and Frederickstad and everything beyond that was gone. We were shocked by the devastation of personal property and the geography and everything but also to set us back further was what we saw for the utility damage. We literally started construction of these lines at the generator. We didn't go out 10 miles and start spot building and repairing as if it were a storm here in Concord. We started right at the generating plant, right coming off the transformers right off the switch gear, that's where we started rebuilding because there was just nothing to save. It was either cut it out of the way or chop it down.
You know being in the business as long as we have you think you've seen devastation through storms and accidents and overloads but to see what this did was unbelieveable.
Gordon - Hopefully you'll never see anything as bad as this. I don't know if the people around here could deal with the destruction that these people experienced. Of course, the climate is a lot different too. We'd have a real problem if a storm like that ever came here this time of the year because you're talking it could be a year before these people see their lights. I mean people would freeze to death around here. Down there of course the climate is more conducive to not having electricity but still while I was there power was coming back on but the main hospital still didn't have power other than generators. The sewage treatment plants didn't have any power so raw sewage was being dumped into the ocean, into a beautiful bay.
Even after the storm the beaches were just beautiful, they had a lot of debris laying all over them, but they were still beautiful. Here the number one concern would be getting the hospitals going. I think the army brought in generators to run these hospitals plus the main hospital on the island, I was told, during the storm a good portion of it got destroyed. I drove by, the structural damage outside didn't look that bad but a lot of windows were blown out of it. They told me a lot of people died in the hospital during the storm because they just didn't have the facilities to take care of them.
They did a lot of burning of debris. They had to do that or dig a hole as big as Concord. The dump was staggering. That was a real unhealthy atmosphere because they were just picking up everything and throwing it in and burning it.
Chip - That's all you could smell was stuff burning. It wasn't just dead trees and so on it was live trees, they were using gasoline and tires. These were individual homeowners. The big hotel areas had professional crews that were coming with dozers and trucks and hauling it to the dump but the individual homeowner had no access to cart all this stuff away. We would be working in these valleys and there would be 10-15 individual fires going all day and you couple that with 100Â°+ weather. I tell you it was 105Â° every day we were there. There was just a stench. I also have to say there were dead animals. Every road not just sporadically but every road was cleared with bulldozers all the way and there were houses and trees in the road. Underneath these big piles of debris that they pushed off the road you knew there was a carcass in it because the stink was awful.
Gordon - That I think was probably the worst part of the whole job because not only the smell of it, but you didn't know what they were burning. We talk about toxic fumes, well you could have had some of the most toxic fumes in the world floating around that island. But again these people don't have much choice. They have so many things going against them. It's an island so that everything that's brought in there has to be either flown in or shipped in and to get anything off the island, they can't just take it in a truck and haul it out in the desert somewhere. It's got to stay right there, either that or dump it in the ocean.
Chip - People were living in boxes or cars. There was no such thing as a car that would go by you that was intact. Either all the glass would be out of it, roofs crushed on it, no roofs. I saw one family one day when I was up on a pole go by in a car that had no roof, no windows, no interior, they were sitting on springs, it was gone. Most of them were destroyed by flying debris. If you can imagine 200-mile-an-hour consistent wind, the debris that was in the air was the most dangerous part of the whole thing. Whole chunks of tin roofing just wrapped around a pole.
Gordon - The general manager down there, since promoted to superintendent, said the blessing of the storm was that it was at night. If it had ever been in the day time, more people would have been killed because they would have been out. This steel, corrugated steel, was going through the air just like a razor so anything that was in its way got cut in half. All the working class homes had roofs of corrugated steel. The real fancy condos were more elaborate. They didn't survive the destruction either. The cheaper homes went to the ground and the more rugged ones, the foundations and the walls were standing, but I keep saying it was a rarity to see a house with a roof left on.
The average poles there were 60 feet. The pools we have here
in town are usually 40-45 feet. They had two lines in, one a
13,200 line and then they had a 25,000 volt line. When Chip was
down there, they bounced from the 25,000 volt line to the 13,200
line. The 13,200 line was designed more like what we have in Concord. The 25,000 volt line is basically what we classify as a high tension line. So when we got down there, they delegated because of the equipment Concord had brought down, the truck was a lot more rugged than a lot of the equipment that was down there, so they delegated us to work on this 25,000 volt line. Since the voltage was higher, the poles were bigger, the hardware was bigger, everything was just bigger. The spans were a lot longer.
It was just big, heavy hard work.
It would have been better if they had had the money and time and basically to sum up the logistics to have all brand new wire, all brand new poles, all brand new crossarms, and start right down and build a brand new system. That's what they're trying to do but the logistics at the beginning, they couldn't get the hardware. One of the problems is again it is an island and you had to ship all this stuff in. They would bring all these men in but they didn't have the hardware so we were taking a lot of the wire that was on the ground. At least our crew, 90% of the wire was on the ground and we were picking it up and putting it back up in the air again. That takes time doing it that way and its a lot more dangerous really. You're trying to pull wire out of bushes and down in the area where Chip worked they were pulling wire off roofs of houses. It was hard.
Building a brand new system is a lot of hard word too but you just set your equipment up and go. This way you've got to take what's there, clean it off, and get it back up in the air and its time consuming and real hard work. It was dangerous.
Chip had a situation and I did too where the wench line on the truck broke because it was such a strain. And when things let go and you don't expect it to let go, people could be hurt. We were fortunate. We had a man from Littleton whose hand was crushed loading poles. He wasn't hurt seriously enough that he had to be hospitalized, matter of fact he came back to work that day. While Chip was there, a lineman from Guam, a pole fell over and crushed him and I heard a lineman from Alabama was electrocuted. That happened the day we were changing crews.
Kurt Lanciani from Littleton was the original coordinator of the operation because he was the president of this NEPPA.
Chip - He was the one contacted by FEMA as the representative of NEPPA. Kurt Lanciani put the trip together and he appointed two coordinators, one to be with each group. We had one coordinator for two weeks, his name was Paul Carlson, who is superintendent of distribution and engineer from Reading and when Paul left he turned the reins over to Jerry Fields who was also from Reading and also in the engineering department so they were able to keep some kind of continuity by having these two engineers from Reading. They were in contact with each other while one was at home and the other was down there. I think everybody felt that worked out pretty well having two guys that were familiar with each other's ways. While we were down there, these two guys were not only the coordinators for us but they were in charge of all the contacts with WAPPA, the island water and power authority. They handled all the coordination through WAPPA and then to us to pass jobs on to us, specifications as to how they wanted things built and provided us with stock and everything down to our laundry arrangements. They had a tough job.
We stayed in a hotel. When we got there, they claim they have the biggest salt water pool in the Caribbean and it was filled to the top with rock from the ocean. They had pretty well cleaned it out when Gordon got there.
Gordon - They told me that this hotel was a real exclusive hotel to stay in. It was not an exclusive hotel!
Chip - It was trash, the ocean ran right through the lobby.
Gordon - The eating area had two light bulbs just little temporary light bulbs. We were fortunate the night we landed there two weeks after Chip had been there, the first night we got there they turned the power on.
Chip - You can thank me for that!
Gordon - But the whole time he was there, there was no electricity other than a generator running the kitchen facilities and stuff. We had a ceiling fan in our room and that thing was sacred. I never shut it off because I knew if I shut it off it would never come on again. You've got to remember these rooms had been completely full of salt water. You know when you go to a hotel you expect laundry service and everything, well we were there for seventeen days and they came once and changed the sheets. I'm not criticizing the hotel, they just didn't have the facilities. They did as best they could and they fed us as best they could.
As to the temperature, in Chip's case they were having 105Â° weather. When we got there, the climate had changed. They have what they call the Christmas winds in November and they are getting a constant seabreeze and as the month progresses, more rain will start coming. But we would have 94-95Â° temperatures but we did have a breeze where they had 105Â° temperature with no breeze. In our case, when Neil and I were there, it was a pleasure to go up on the pole because there was always a breeze, on the ground it was hot as hell. I guess when he was there it didn't matter whether you were on the pole or on the ground, it was hot. If you didn't have a breeze, 105Â° temperature, that's hot. It was humid.
Chip - One of the crews had a little portable thermometer on their truck. We kept it in the shade and it spiked right out, right above the 110 mark a few times. If you start working in the morning at dawn, you're on the job when the sun comes up. I mean I was unbearably hot at 7:30 in the morning and you start thinking that you have 10 more hours and its going to get considerably hotter as the day goes on.
Gordon - The hardest part of the day was the morning. The day started at 5 in the dark and it ended at 6 and it was dark at 7. The first part of the day, every day, I used to just break out in a sweat. I didn't have to be working. First of all you'd wake up and you felt all sticky and dirty from just the salt air. I couldn't sleep there. We had the fan to keep the air moving in the room but he didn't have anything.
Chip - We had a problem with bugs in our room.
Gordon - And the land crabs would come into the room and these things are big. The first night we were there one of them got up into the air conditioning unit which did not work because there wasn't an air conditioning unit left on the roof to run this thing anymore but it was up in the thing banging away. I got out of bed and I looked at this thing and decided I wasn't going to bother with it then because these things can attack you. In the morning I got up and this thing came after me and I'm running away from it and of course Neil had a few comments after and then I put on a pair of gloves and went after it. I was a hero and got it out of the room.
Chip - The politics of the island at that time we called politricks. There was a hassle with materials when we got there and to this day they claim that the storm that went over St. Croix was similar in velocity to the one that went through St. Thomas and St. John, adjoining islands. But St. Thomas and St. John were rebuilt or well on their way. In fact they are now advertising for tourists. The governor of St. Croix is also the governor of St. Thomas, his name is Farrell and he lives on St. Thomas but all the material that goes to St. Croix stops at St. Thomas so much of the material that was designated for St. Croix was picked off in St. Thomas and the natives were really, really up in arms. They know all the tricks. There's a lot of payola, there's a lot of dirty politics, no question about it.
Gordon - The governor of St. Thomas who governs St. Croix, they told me hasn't been on St. Croix yet and he won't come there because they know that the people in St. Croix would probably kill him. It's a shame. Even prior to the storm this was happening. We talked to the people that worked with WAPPA the power company and all the good trucks and all the good equipment landed in St. Thomas and they picked over what they needed, now this was prior to any storm, and then anything that was left over would go to St. Croix. So there's always been hard feelings between these two islands as far as governing the islands anyway. Even the tourism, all the tourist ships stop at St. Thomas, they don't stop at St. Croix. Anybody that goes to St. Croix has to make arrangements on their own. The St. Thomas travel authorities do not push coming to St. Croix, they want everything for themselves.
Myself, I definitely want to go to St. Croix in five years. I want to see those people. I want to see Miguel, the guy we were talking about who coordinated the whole thing. He was what they classify as a Cruzan and he was one of the finest guys you could ever possibly work for. Since the storm he has gone to work every morning at 4:00 and his day usually ends at midnight. He's lost 60 pounds over the storm. He's got all these men running all over the place and he's responsible for all of them and he just stays so calm through the whole thing. He'd do anything for you. He's got responsibility for all the linemen working on St. Croix and like Chip mentioned, one day he needed something, just holler at him he slams on the brakes and goes and gets it for you. The guy is unbelieveable, he would go out of his way to do anything for you. Hopefully he is supposed to come to the states in two or three weeks and if he does we all want to try and get something together. He was a character.
Miguel claims it will be a year before everybody's power is
on. I mean the main lines by February or March I would say would
be on, these 25,000 volt lines on, and the main distribution lines on. You know the guy that lives on top of that mountain, there is
only two wires going up there, he's at the last of the list and he's got a long wait for his electricity. Because a lot of those places you don't bring trucks in, there's only one way to get there and that's to haul the poles in with a bulldozer and everything is climbing and pulling on wire by hand. It's not going to be an easy project.
One thing they did learn from other hurricanes is that they shut the power off before the hurricane hit so we didn't have a big problem with live wires. I'm sure there's probably a problem with live wires now because they claim there's going to be 600 linemen working down there by the time they get everything fully going. When you got 600 linemen going and then you start putting on 40-45% power and you have that many people working on a system, there's really a potential of somebody getting electrocuted. You're playing with a loaded gun there.
The other problem we had when we were down there, you had to really be careful because the big thing was they were selling generators to everybody so everybody would get a generator in their house and they would hook it up and you can't just take a generator and put it on your electrical system in your house, you have to do some preventive measures to your main switch into your house to prevent it from backfeeding into the system. If it should backfeed into the system that would kill a lineman as quick as the electricity was on under normal situations. So while we were down there, even though the power was out you had to really be looking over your shoulder all the time to be sure that everything that we could possibly do to prevent backfeed in the system so we would go down the road and put grounds at both ends of where we were working and then any laterals coming off we would make sure they were cut clear or the cutter boxes were open. So you spend a lot of time just looking over your shoulder to make sure you were safe working.
The work we were doing was extremely dangerous. It was a lot more dangerous than I thought it was going to be. We talked about this the other day in the garage. We finally got to the airport to leave, sitting there waiting for the plane to get you out of there, it gave you a chance to sit back and reflect on what had happened and all of a sudden it was just a sigh of relief to know that you made it in one piece. The only thing you had to worry about then was a plane crash. You didn't have to worry about getting electrocuted, you didn't have to worry about a pole falling over on top of you, you didn't have to worry about a wench line on one of trucks snapping and the wire taking off and breaking off or hurting somebody.
Chip - There were so many hazards that weren't present at home here that you had to deal with there.
Gordon - You practiced safety as much as you could but under those circumstances, I mean you had to just go out there every day and say a little prayer and hope for the best.
Chip - When we were leaving and they were coming, we were dying to get home. We were just all burned out and needed to get home, needed to get away. But I think the feeling was the same among all the guys on the plane going home, we knew what we saw and what we went through for two weeks and how lucky we were that nobody got hurt and we were all really wondering about those guys spending the next weeks down there. We were definitely lucky.
If you look at our group as a whole, the whole one month trip, two groups two weeks and that we got out of there without some kind of a serious injury or something serious happening, it was really a godsend. Our contingency was equal to the contingency from Alabama and Guam. Guam had one guy killed and Alabama had one guy killed and they had other injuries, we came home clean and we probably did more work than those guys, I would be willing to bet. Not to take anything away from them but we were equipped and experienced and for us to all have gotten home after a month to me was very lucky against the odds.
Gordon - The other thing that was unique was we all work as linemen but we all work for different utilities and it's like everything else in life everybody had their ways of doing things and line work is no different than anything else. So you had to take these 16 different utilities from all over New England and band them together and they had to all work together and you had to get a system going that everybody worked under.
In that article in the newspaper, that's why I said I was really proud to be a lineman because these guys, every one of them, it was a real honor to work with them. Everything just kind of fell into place. I mean we had those days where everything just turned into a big mess but overall, it just impressed me it was unbelieveable how everything fell into place and everybody got along. There was no problem with one guy trying to outdo another guy. Most of the guys that went down there and Chip and I mentioned this before, were senior men in the company and all the companies dealt with as far as who was going to go by seniority. So you're taking a lot of foremen that had worked the trade for many years, they are in charge and now all of a sudden you put all these guys together and you think well they're going to start knocking heads. We never had that situation, not at all. We just kind of went together and went to work together and people would make a suggestion and you went out and did it. Under the circumstances I just think the thing went extremely well and we all came back in one piece.
Chip - There were probably 32 in each group of two weeks stays - 64 total linemen went down there and I would say eight of them were from Groton, CT, the rest were from eastern Mass and central Mass utilities.
Gordon - When we were leaving, we were the last group to get out of there from this area, relieving us were guys from Texas, guys from Arkansas, Kansas, and contractors coming from all over the country, but these were municipal power companies just like Concord, Littleton, Reading and all the other towns that participated.
I wanted to get home and see my family but I hated to leave them the way we had to leave them.
Chip - Knowing there was so much to do and knowing how much we could accomplish in comparison to the local utility, they couldn't hold a candle to what we could do because of the equipment and the experience.
Gordon - They are great guys but they don't have the equipment and they don't have the experience. It's a third world country and they do things differently.
Chip - They work on everything dead for one thing. They don't work on power live and we do. The times we worked on live high voltage, they would crowd around and act like we were all nuts. To us it was like just another day at the shop basically.
As he said there was a feeling you got leaving, that there was so much left to be done, the people were so nice you wanted to do things for them and we were equipped to do a lot. We had a talented group of people.
Gordon - They wanted to pay us triple time to stay there. WAPPA the power company, the manager had talked to one of our representatives and they would have done anything to keep us there. But the utilities that participated were basically the size of Concord, other than Reading and Taunton, probably the two largest in Massachusetts, they are strapped for equipment. You can't just send a truck down there and leave it there for six months and keep rotating crews. Because like Concord we have six or seven linemen that's the whole power company and after a while its going to catch up with you. After you're down there for two weeks working like that from 5:00 until 6:00 at night, it takes a toll. I had enough. I know at my age it was nice to get home and get into nice clean sheets.
The people were very appreciative. One day we were working on the pole and all of a sudden this guy pulls up and opened up his trunk and he had a full course meal for everybody. We wanted to keep working and get the thing done but one of the natives as working with us and he said, "No you've got to come down and eat or you'll insult him." So we had to all come down and eat the meal. They'd bring out cold drinks. They'd do anything. They'd go by the job and yell thank you or we love you. They would show gratitude in some way. That's why it was so hard to leave.
Chip - When we were first got there, people were hanging out of their slum houses, screaming thank you, we love you. It was like armistice day. Which further shocked us. We're thinking what are these people so pumped up about, what are we going to be able to do for them? They're looking at us like okay the lights are going to be on tomorrow. And us looking around the island with our experience are thinking yea, see you next year.
Gordon - It was good for us to go down in the first group of people in the relief effort because I think as time progresses and the lights don't come on, patience is going to wear thin with some of these people. We never had any problems but I can see maybe even now there are going to be certain things and we had touched on it before, it's a very, very political country. And all of a sudden when your neighbor gets his lights and you don't, there's going to be some real problems.
Chip - I literally saw that happen. Just a quick little story. There was a guy in a little neighborhood store running on a generator. All the local people would be hanging out there drinking beer all day and at the end of our day, we would go there for a cold beer, this guy would give it to us. I'm talking about a store that you wouldn't see here, I'm talking about a pit with a guy making a few pennies a day in, it had a few small convenience items and some beer and he was giving it to us and you've got to accept that as a big loss for that guy. He would go in the back of his store and get us beer out of an iced down cooler, now ice was very expensive. He didn't just give us his warm beer off the floor, this isn't a package store either, this is a convenience store. So we made a pledge that we're going to get this guy's power on before we leave. On my last day on the job, Miguel was going by in the afternoon and I flagged him down and I explained I wanted to go a couple streets over to the guy in the convenience store and see what we could do for him because I knew we had the main line of power working but we hadn't begun to put services back on so I asked him to take me over there, so he did. We walked into the crowd in the store, the every day gathering, and asked the guy if he had his main circuit breaker ready because we could maybe get his transformer working to feed his business. The other guys in the store, a couple in particular, went crazy threatening to call the utility that if this general store's power went on and their power didn't go back on next door then they would talk favoritism. Under the circumstances the owner of the store looked at Miguel and said in Spanish "Thanks, anyway I understand, don't put yourself on the line." Miguel in his Spanish swearing terms said goodbye to the guy that wouldn't let us turn the power on and we took off. It was a drag. We wanted to put this guy's power on. We had the money to pay for this. I actually felt guilty taking the beer from the guy because I had a pocket full of money. I could very easily pay for my beer at the end of the day. My living expenses were minimal. This guy needed my four bucks for a six pack more than I could take all his profit on his day for him giving me a case of beer. A cold case of beer down there was worth $25. And he'd tell you to come back the next day.
And a lot of people were like that, gave you things they didn't have. I personally felt guilty taking anything from anyone because I could just as easy go downtown and buy anything I wanted.
Gordon - The thing too is it's going to be hard to explain to people, certain customers it's a lot easier to put their power on than others because of the different hookups and transformers. The average person you can't explain that to so they're going to run into problems in that respect. If a storm happens around here, we start at the source of electricity which would be the substation which in St. Croix they had to start the same way. There's no sense in going ten miles down the road if you don't have any power right where it comes from. And you just keeping working your way out. Well, people don't understand that either, Well, the wire is up in front of my house but the lights aren't on. Well, there's a lot more to it than just the wire being up, the wires two miles down the road have got to be up too. You know we've -experienced that here after the hurricane. We had people accuse us, well you can turn my lights on but you won't do it. Well, we can't turn your lights on, you have to get other things done first. So they are going to run into some serious problems. And that's why in a sense we probably lucked out by being thefirst group to go down. Guys coming along later are going to have some problems. This guy, Miguel would say he's going to have his hands full. He's going to be in the hot seat because he's a home town boy and everybody who knows Miguel is looking to get their lights on, and he's got to say no.
Chip - It was just a pleasure to work with Miguel. It wasn't just that he was a nice guy to work for, he had the most entertaining personality you'd ever want to see. You want to hear somebody tell a funny story. It was comic relief. It made some difficult days a little brighter when he came by a job and told a story. We'd encourage the guy to tell a story, and he got worked up and he'd jump around.
Gordon - He's going to retire next year and I told him he should go around and give seminars on how to handle people. He had all these people working for him and he could handle everybody. Everybody had a problem and he'd take care of it, he was just one of those guys that had that way about him. I don't think he ever got out of high school. And he knew the system like the back of his hand. He knew every inch of it. If you had a question and you'd pull in the yard and ask Miguel what do you want to do with such and such, do you want to go down and see it and he says, "No, I know what you mean." It was a big system too. St. Croix consists of 28 miles by 8 miles and this guy was in charge of the whole thing.
Chip - It consisted of urban areas and a lot of rural areas and he knew everything. As much as he appeared to be laid back, I think as a American, you think of these people and this rinky-dink utility and they don't know what's going on, it wasn't like that. We had a tendency to think like that, that we'll fix it. But in his own subtle way he fixed it just the way he wanted it. That's the way it had to be.
Gordon - The other thing too that was amazing. You went into the WAPPA yard in the morning, that's where you pick up all your stock and stuff and I think when we were leaving they were getting away from that because as more and more linemen came and more and more trucks came, it was just turning into mass chaos in there every morning. The yard was definitely not designed to take in the kind of equipment we had. I mean our trucks are bigger in comparison to theirs. You get in there and it would just lock right up with equipment. But we would get in there in the morning and they had a set procedure they went through every day. You had to shake hands with everybody and you had to say good morning and you had to talk to everybody. If you didn't, they were insulted.
Chip - Even the girls in the office. If you ignore them, that's very, very rude. They're insulted.
Gordon - I had it made there. I walked in and shook everybody's hand, talked to everybody, knew everybody in the place. I used to have to keep asking Neil what everybody's name was but other than that I was doing fine. Of course, I had Neil with me and he was the other diplomat and we would go down through there and of course Chip had introduced me to Miguel at the airport and we hit it off right at the beginning. I just really liked the people. They were great. They were just so nice. They had their way of doing things, and sometimes I think they have the right idea.
Chip - It's a different culture. We're just home bodies, home here in the fastest place in the world, Boston, there's no other place in the country that is as high speed as where we are, and you go down there and these people are so much more laid back and they could accept this devastation so much better than people here could.
Gordon - No, the people around here wouldn't be able to handle what happened to those people. And I'm not criticizing the people that live here because I'm just speaking for myself, I know how I would feel if I woke up in the morning and saw what they had to see. I can picture it because I was there but I can't really feel what they must have felt because I mean people down there have lost everything. There were people down there that not only lost homes, but boats, cars, members of their families hurt.
Chip - A lot of people were walking around with casts or on crutches.
Gordon - The electricity was a minor thing to them. Their big thing was my family is all together.
Chip - You talk to a lot of people in the neighborhood you work in and I like to talk to people from different areas. I kept asking people and I have this on film, what happened to them that night of the hurricane, what did you do the night of the hurricane? What happened to you? One thing that every single person told me was that they all spent the night huddled together crying and kissing each other goodbye because they did not believe they would get through the night. This was an island that had not had a serious hurricane in 70 years so no one that was alive on the island had ever experienced a major hurricane much less the worst hurricane on record anywhere. That really set me back. To talk to the people and hear the experience that they went through, it made you realize how lucky we are. We live in the area of the world particularly New England that is just never hit by devastation like that. I mean we don't deal with tornados, we don't deal with major hurricanes for the most part, the worse we deal with is a foot and a half of snow and that raises hell.
Gordon - When you put the blizzard and hurricane Gloria into perspective with hurricane Hugo in St. Croix, there is no comparison. There is no way you could compare the two because these people are just devastated. Like I was saying this lady that I talked to, they had moved from the states down there and they haven't been there a full year, the hurricane came and she was telling me she and her family and friends were in the kitchen because they felt that was the safest place in the house, they had these long handles on the doors, they were real, real fancy. They said it was like the movie "The Exorcist", the handle was going around like a propellor, that's how forceful the wind was. It finally blew the handle apart in front of them and then the door blew off. She said "It's something I will never ever forget."
And then we heard stories back here about the looting and
we talked to people that experienced having people come in and
loot their homes. One lady who ran the hotel as far as the
kitchen goes actually shot and killed three people. I think she's
going to have a nervous breakdown. The whole time we were there
all she did was work but you could see her, she's just running on sheer nerves. Her house got completely destroyed. Everybody I
talked to told me that her house was something that you see a
picture of on a postcard, she was really into flowers and it was on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
Chip - She has two rottweilers as companions and they led her to a field from her house and laid on top of her. She laid in the field throughout the storm.
There was another thing I thought of a few minutes ago when you ask about what was it like when we first got there and what we saw and this is something that had been cleaned up quite a bit when we got there and when these guys got there.
At the end of the storm, and remember this is a tropical island and its loaded with all kinds of thick vegetation and plants, there was not a leaf left on a tree or a blade of grass left that wasn't brown. The grass had turned brown. It looked like a war zone that had been all burned.
Gordon - The thing about that island is that they have a lot of things going for them, the climate is very conducive for everything coming back. In fact you could almost watch the grass grow there. I mean it was like living in a greenhouse because it was extremely warm and they would get these showers and then you would get that humid temperature. When I first got there, there was very little growth on the palm trees, and now they are actually getting palms on them, and that's a period of 17 days. I'm sure right now if we went back we would be completely amazed, I'm sure Chip would be because when he was there, there was nothing. So mother nature does take care of itself but areas like the rain forests that took hundreds and hundreds of years to grow, they're just not going to be there any more. I guess prior to the storm that area was a big tourist attraction. There's nothing there any more.
Tourism will take a while to come back. On my own behalf I would like to go back there in five years. And I don't think any time prior to five years will be worth really going to see the island. They have some serious problems. Their economy relied on tourism. Their economy wasn't very good prior to the storm from what I could see of the island. We touched on this before - St. Thomas takes the tourists, St. Croix gets what's left. There are a lot of people who come there and think the island is beautiful and live there that are from the states but essentially they are not tourists. The ships don't come in and the people don't come off the ships and spend a lot of money. These people have homes there and they just live there and they live like you and I do so they are not going out and spending a lot of money at one time. I can't really say tourism is a big business with them because St. Thomas gets most of it. But what they have lost is all the real money people that were on the island and did help the economy out. Those people packed up and left and they're not coming back until things are straightened and a lot of them aren't coming back. They'll never come back.
Chip - Most of the local people, most of the Cruzans don't have much money and don't have much alternative. They're living in what they have left for property which might consist of one wall and a make-shift other wall. It was the people with money that were able to leave soon thereafter and live elsewhere but the majority of the natives had no alternative. I was talking to a guy the day before I left that mentioned to me that the hospital was originally staffed by 34 doctors and four days after the storm, there were three left. There was nobody there to treat people until the Red Cross came, and the Red Cross couldn't get on until the island was secured by military police and FBI. So the money people left including doctors. It showed their loyalty to the island.
Gordon - I got scratched down there and it got infected and there was a mash unit right at the airport, an army hospital just like going right back to Vietnam exactly, tents out there, guys laying on cots with intravenous in them, helicopters flying in with people who were banged up in one way or another, so that brought back some memories for me.
The army was essentially running the island. Wherever there wasn't any water facilities, they would transport water in. They set these big generator units at the essential spots that had to have electricity like the hospitals. And of the logistics as far as our equipment coming and going off the island was all military, commercial airlines brought us in because Chip and Fran came down with the truck. The air force had to get us off the island. Now the army corps of engineers have come in and they have essentially taken over WAPPA. What happened the last week we were there, they don't want to go in and just tell them we're taking over your power company because they're playing politics too. But as far as any supplies or any of the men to work on the power lines or the water systems or the sewage treatment plants, anything to do with the utility industry, the Army Corps of Engineers now is in charge of it and so they're responsible for getting all the equipment there and getting all the men there and providing that it's a safe working environment for the men and providing accommodations and food, transportation in and out of the country - they have their hands full.
Chip - It made a big difference when the Army Corps of Engineers came on and took over because it opened the means for cargo transportation. It was a problem getting materials there because they would be filtered through St. Thomas and they weren't just getting there. There was no reason why they couldn't get there but as soon as the Army Corps of Engineers got involved everything was there instantly. The main reason for the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers, if I'm right the sewage treatment plants were all down with no power, and this coupled with the fact that all the oil holding tanks for the generating plants all blew down, so there were hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil in the bay. That was already in there and then all the raw sewerage is bypassing the treatment plants and going into the bay again. So this, an ice blue Caribbean sea further holding back tourism, because it's going to take so much time for it to be clean. So I think that was the main reason the Army Corps of Engineers got involved, the power was not getting into the treatment plant. When we were there, we got power into the treatment plant but we didn't have it on. I think the day before we left we got it on. But it was good they got involved
Gordon - Our first week there was a problem with stock but the second week there was a drastic change. Anything you needed was there.
Just a simple problem that turned into a major problem, we were talking about all the trucks going to the WAPPA yard to pick up the hardware for the job in the morning, the reason you had to go there to get the stuff, they didn't have any trucks to haul the equipment out that we needed for the job. They wanted the line crews like ourselves to be working on the power lines they didn't want us hauling equipment. Well it was hard because the stuff was so big to go do one job it would take your whole truck up where you might do six jobs in the course of a day so you needed somebody with a little flatbed truck to bring in equipment. And that's one thing the Army Corps of Engineers did was bring in flatbed trucks and that's all they were doing was delivering stock right to the hotels or right to the jobs wherever the crews were set up. So that's another thing that the guys going down there now won't have like we did going to the WAPPA yard and working with the WAPPA linemen. They probably won't have any contact with those guys. They probably won't have contact with Miguel because now this whole operation is getting so big there will be people from the Army Corps of Engineers telling them what to do. The new guys are going to miss that public relations opportunity of going to the yard and talking to everybody.
You can sit on a pole on a hill and see St. Thomas, St. John and Puerto Rico. There's another island there that got more destruction then St. Croix, Montserrat and I think it's a British colony. In fact one of the Cruzans that stayed with us, his family was there and he still didn't know if they were alive. They had no communications, no power and the Army Corps of Engineers was telling me that just out of a public relations kind of thing with the British government, some of the crews that were landed in St. Croix were going to go to Montserrat. He said he didn't think they were going to be able to do anything but at least put some people out there. It sounded like they had a tidal wave go across the island, there was nothing left. They haven't started to clean that up.
Chip - Another thing that I thought of is if you go there as a tourist, I'd never been to the Caribbean and a lot of friends have, you have a tendency to stay in your little hotel, your little plastic paradise, and you sit in the pool under the grass huts and drink your pina coladas and you might get into your little rental car and drive downtown to the tourist shops and hit a beach and drive back to your hotel. The experience we got where there were no tourists, there were no fancy hotel resorts to go to, there were just evacuated beaches basically, to go to work in the neighborhoods with the locals was an experience that people could go to the Caribbean all their life as tourists and never experience, never, never really get the true flavor and meet the people. I thought that was special. I've always had that feeling as an American going into an island like that - here comes the rich yankees and they'll sit around and we'll wait on them and the people will all smile and you only see that plastic side of the people because that's their job, they're making money from you and they want you to be happy. You don't really see them, you don't really meet them, you don't know them.
Gordon - We used to go to a store and pick up juice and items to keep on the trucks, WAPPA would have all that there for us, but we'd go to the store and buy candy and things and keep it in the cooler in the truck. We had a guy who was working with us named Tommy Carlos from Taunton and between him and Neil those guys had every kid on the island following them because they always gave them things. That picture you have of me on the pole at the base of the pole is a house and one day this little kid was standing out there, this little black kid with curly hair, cute so I was just putting my gear on and the kid came over and was looking so I gave him some candy. And it was like the old mother that lived in the shoe, I mean I couldn't believe the kids that came out of this house. When we would go to the store we would load the truck up in the morning on the way out to the job with candy and stuff and at that one house we emptied it. I mean everything was gone, coca cola, juice everything in the cooler was finished. So we didn't have anything for ourselves so we had to go back and get more stuff later in the day. These kids just kept coming and coming out of the house.
The kids were cute though. When they would go to school, they would have on their uniforms and they would be spotless.
Chip - They just finished building a junior high school with a federal grant. It was just totally destroyed. I understand they had a lot of construction problems on it when it was being built and there were a lot of complaints. It was right on the ocean. All the three-phased cables were on top of the roof and it was a quarter of a mile from the power lines.
Gordon - The operation with the different linemen from different parts of the country will continue throughout the year.
Chip - I think the mutual aid from other utilities is finished. I think that it is now in the hands of private contractors that are getting paid through FEMA. I think when the crew from Alabama leaves that will be the end of the mutual aid.
Gordon - When the crew from Alabama came in, that was a big utility truck they brought in and they had crews that specialized in this. They travel all over the country to any kind of disaster scene and help people out. It was a public relations thing this power company had set up. They had a real advantage over us as that was what they did. They worked together every day, they had a boss that was with them all the time. The thing they did also was when they came to help you, they built the system to their standards not to WAPPA standards. That was the agreement WAPPA had to make with them. They didn't do the construction we did. They built it to the way they would build it back home and if you didn't accept that, they weren't coming. But they brought all their own hardware also. I mean they didn't have to wait for anything. This was a big time operation when these people showed up. They brought everything with them. I'm sure they must get quite a bill when Alabama Power and Light leaves. But these guys went all over to help out. They had been in South Carolina and never went home and were put on a plane to St. Croix. They were supposed to go home in two weeks but they were told they weren't going home in two weeks, they were staying another two weeks.
They didn't have a choice. If they didn't like it, they could quit and get a plane home.
If I were called again I would definitely go again. As I say, I had it a little better than Chip did. But even if I had gone the first two weeks I think I would still go back.
Chip - Of course you would. It was just a few more hardships but the same experience and you do this work all your life. It's like any other job, it becomes routine and you have to make it exciting. I feel that at age 36 I've been doing this for a long time but I also realize that I will never do anything that will top it, I just won't.
Gordon - It was great to come home. You do miss your family but it's kind of a let down in one respect. You work with all these guys and you got a real close bond between linemen. I mean we all work together and we're all linemen but we take things for granted after a while. When you go into a situation like that after a while you don't take things for granted any more. You kind of look back at it and say you are different than a lot of people and what they do for a living. Because like I said everybody does things a little differently but when they all got together we all basically did things the same way and they are all different types of individuals but boiled down they are all linemen.