Ross Holmes remembers driving through a sea of blue tarps in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Almost every house had been severely damaged by Hurricane Maria. The roads had no working traffic signals. And every so often, Holmes would pass a fallen billboard, a split telephone pole or a road sign lying broken and twisted in the street.
The 59-year-old East Meadow resident was part of the first wave of more than 50 crew members that PSEG Long Island deployed to Puerto Rico beginning in November. From Nov. 27 through Dec. 22, he traveled around the San Juan area, helping restore power and repair the damaged electrical grid.
Holmes has been responding to natural disasters for almost 30 years as an electrical foreman for PSEG. In the days after a power outage, he may work on restoring power anywhere in the tri-state area.
“Nothing I’ve seen before was of this magnitude,” he said of the destruction that was still very much in evidence on the island three months after the hurricane. Many areas are still without power, according to PSEG Long Island.
“It’s easy for us to forget,” Holmes said of the destruction. “We’ve got our electric, we’ve got our water. But I won’t forget.”
In response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call for New York to support Puerto Rico, PSEG Long Island, along with the New York Power Authority and other local companies, sent a total of 3,500 workers to help restore power to the island. “There were a lot of obstacles,” Holmes said of the restoration efforts, adding that the damage was worse than he had expected. Crews found broken utility poles toppled through roofs and in the middle of roads. Electrical wires were tangled with telecommunication wires and other debris.
Holmes and his colleagues worked 16-hour days, seven days a week. Most of the neighborhoods in which PSEG Long Island operated were suburban communities of similar size to many in Nassau County. And the damage, Holmes said, was hauntingly reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — only worse. “This was a whole country,” he said.
The way in which San Juan homeowners reacted to the disaster echoed what Holmes said he saw in his own backyard roughly five years ago: Everyone was working in tandem toward a common goal. “The homeowners were all just so grateful,” he added, noting that they welcomed the electricians with open arms, and gave them bottled water.
Other East Meadow residents have provided support to Puerto Rico since the storm. Migdalia Otero, vice president of operations at the Island Harvest Food Bank, and Rebecca Dresner, an East Meadow volunteer, flew to Bayamón, Puerto Rico, in late September to help set up two food warehouses.
The pair initiated the distribution of food and supplies that were donated by hundreds of Long Islanders at Island Harvest’s 14 drop-off locations across Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Despite such efforts, however, Holmes said, there is still a great deal of work to be done. On Thursday, a second group of PSEG workers was set to return from Puerto Rico, and on Friday, another group was scheduled to be deployed.
As for Holmes, he arrived back on Long Island before the holidays, and has been responding to local power outages. He chuckled as he recalled returning from weeks of intensive work in 90-degree weather only to work in frigid temperatures on Long Island after the Jan. 4 blizzard. “I enjoy what I do,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”