Calls island’s storm damage “the worst I’ve ever seen” –
By Patricia Beech –
Expressions of gratitude from residents of storm-ravaged Puerto Rico left a lasting impression on an Adams County utility worker who traveled to the island to help restore electricity and rebuild the country’s power infrastructure.
Brian Dotson, a Service Lineman with American Electric Power (AEP) in Seaman, said the people of Puerto Rico were some of the most appreciative he’d encountered while restoring power.
“It was a very humbling experience,” said Dotson. “If people knew we were going to be in their area they would show up and ask to feed us, and their neighbors would ask to feed us the next day. It was really unbelievable how grateful they were.”
Dotson was part of a second wave of utility workers sent to restore power after back-to-back hurricanes left most of the Caribbean island in the dark.
Recent studies have found that 50 percent of the island’s residents went without power for two months, marking the longest loss of electric power in U.S. history.
Dotson, who has more than a decade of experience working storms, described the damage as “complete devastation” and “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
“Most of the homes are concrete block, so they were still standing, but they had extensive damage,” he said. “There were blue tarps everywhere you looked serving as roofs and windows and doors.”
He said utility workers commonly heard calls of “God bless you” from islanders who previously were given no hope that power would be quickly restored.
“The people were told they wouldn’t have power until next year,” Dotson said. “So, they were beyond ecstatic when we got it turned on.”
He and his fellow crew members restored power to three villages in the southeastern part of the island.
He said their greatest challenge was dealing with different ranges of primary voltage, from low to high, which required the use of specialized equipment to get the power back on safely.
Weather conditions also presented challenges for Dotson and other mainland utility workers who were unaccustomed to the island’s tropical climate.
“We left 20 degree weather and went to 95 degree weather where it rained every day,” says Dotson. “Typically the weather was very hot and very muggy.”
For 33 days, from Feb. 26 to March 31, Dotson’s crew would roll out of bed before sunrise, pull on their boots, grab their hard hats, and do what needed to be done to get the lights back on.
They worked 16-hour shifts in fierce tropical heat, their fire-retardant clothing drenched in sweat. They returned to their makeshift homes each evening with sore muscles, aching backs, and tired feet knowing they’d made a difference for people struggling to survive in extremely difficult conditions.
“When we arrived we had a goal to have power restored to 95 percent of the people in our work area,” said Dotson. “When we left, we had 94 percent on.”
Being on a tropical island for the first time, Dotson says he experienced a degree of “culture shock”.
Puerto Rico’s spectacular scenery is a backdrop for villages where stray dogs, roosters, and six- foot long iguanas are a common sight. Cell service is hit and miss, depending on where you are on the island, and each day is a reminder that you are not home.
“I missed my youngest son’s fourth birthday, and my wedding anniversary,” he says. “That was hard, but we finally got the wifi working in the house where we were staying so we were able to Face Time after that.”
The trip was also full of first-time experiences for Dotson.
“This was also my first time flying on a chartered jet, and my first time being off the U.S. mainland, it was exciting, and nerve-wracking,” he says. “I’d rather keep my feet on the ground right here in Adams County.”