As of early February, a staggering five months after Hurricanes Maria and Irma made landfall in Puerto Rico, an estimated 1.36 million Americans are still without power. That amounts to nearly 40% of the island’s residents living without lighting, refrigeration, and in many cases clean drinking water. This ongoing crisis is quickly becoming the longest and largest blackout in American history.
The UWUA continues to be extensively involved in Puerto Rico relief efforts. Within days of the hurricanes, UWUA President Mike Langford took action by coordinating with local union presidents to recruit skilled volunteers. Four Utility Worker brothers out of Local 423, in New Jersey, joining an AFL-CIO delegation of first responders, were among the first wave of highly skilled utility workers to offer their expertise to the island. UWUA Region I National Representative Reggie Davis also joined the delegation, to support our volunteers, and deliver food, water and medical supplies to residents. Reggie documented the immense devastation and the labor-led relief efforts in a series of powerful videos shown to members online and at our P4A Conference.
In late November, extending its efforts under a mutual aid agreement with Puerto Rico’s power authority, ConEdison and Rockland Utilities sent more than 100 linemen, specialists, support personnel, and equipment to San Juan. Among the large contingent of UWUA Local 1-2 members in the delegation, 18 Tree Trimmers volunteered their services.
Given the geography of the island, and the need to restore power to remote communities in the mountains and in dense tropical forests, the tree trimmers have had their work cut out for them.
Mike Jones, a longtime tree trimmer and Local 1-2 shop steward explains, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I haven’t seen anything like it. Back in New York, people are upset and impatient when their power is out for a few days, these people are so patient and thankful for our help—they have been waiting months. There are just eight tree crews for hundreds of linemen, and everyday it feels like we are being pulled in a million directions. We are in the city, then in the mountains, all over. When we arrive in their towns, people cry and cheer and make us food—they treat us like movie stars. It’s a good feeling to get these people back to their normal lives.”
This core group of tree trimmers have worked together for years in New York. Much of the group are native Spanish speakers and they have been indispensable in coordinating with local crews and residents. Having been on the island since November, missing all of the holidays, and working overtime against seemingly insurmountable obstacles and continuous setbacks, Mike Jones says, “This has not been easy.”
Just weeks ago, an explosion and fire at an electrical substation put large parts of the capital, San Juan, into darkness. Many of those in the city and surrounding areas whose power had already been restored, were once again suffering blackouts. Despite the setbacks, the crews keep plugging away, and bit by bit, residents are getting back to their normal lives.
“The people are truly good to us,” Mike said. “They don’t have much, but they still offer you water, and when you finish they insist on feeding us. It’s definitely different, we deal more with chickens in the streets than dogs, and the bugs will eat you alive. Everything here is made out of concrete, no wooden houses or structures.”
This cohort has been in Puerto Rico for 13 weeks, and they are slated to return home in mid-March. “We have given up a lot of time to be here. Time away from our loved ones, from holidays, birthdays and our children, but we know deep down that we are here helping the people who need us. It’s just hard to believe what these people have gone through without power for so long.”