A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Duke Energy linemen return to warm welcome after seven-week deployment in Puerto Rico

By Kevin Eigelbach
NKyTribune reporter

When Wayne Kremer’s three daughters welcomed him home Thursday at the Delta Jet Center near CVG, he gathered all three in his arms and wept for joy. One daughter carried a sign, covered with colorful handprints, that read, “These hands prayed for your safety.”

Wayne Kremer was all smiles after seeing his wife, Tricia, and his daughters McKenzie, Audrey and Caroline on Thursday after spending 55 days repairing power lines in Puerto Rico (photos by Kevin Eigelbach).

Kremer and 22 other employees with Duke Energy Ohio and Kentucky returned to Kentucky on Thursday after 55 days spent repairing downed power lines in Puerto Rico.

They were members of a contingent of more than 200 workers Duke sent as part of the U.S. utility industry’s effort to rebuild the U.S. territory’s power infrastructure, which Hurricane Maria devastated last fall.

The hurricane left hundreds of thousands without power, but as of Thursday, about 95 percent of the territory that had power before the hurricane had it again, said Duke spokesperson Sally Thelen.

The work was “beyond challenging,” she said. The company had to send to the island, via container ship, equipment as large as bucket trucks, she said.

Crews had to repair items they would normally replace, she said, and had to get help to cut through jungle-like terrain. The crews normally worked 15-hour days, she said, and they worked 13 days in a row before taking a one-day break.

They were based in Ponce, a town in the southern coast, on the other side of the island from San Juan, the capital.

The island had some of the roughest terrain that Crittenden resident Steve Wainscott had ever worked in. Roads with hairpin turns scaled 4,000-foot mountains, with a drop-off of of 800 to 1,000 feet.

On the plus side – the views were great, Kremer said.

Crittenden resident Steve Wainscott

Most power lines here are strung from poles 200 to 300 feet apart, Wainscott said. There, some spans stretched up to 2,000 feet, over ravines 1,000 feet deep.

“We complain that we have some tough rights-of-ways here, but it’s nothing like what they have down there,” Kremer said.

To get the power lines across those ravines, the crews attached strings to drones, or fired them out of naval guns, Wainscott said.

It was Wainscott’s second visit to Puerto Rico. His first visit, in 1984, was for a very different purpose. He was a welder, he said, and welded together prison cells.

It was Kremer’s first visit, and he had never been away from home so long. He’s always there for dinner, and it was hard not having him at the table, said his wife, Tricia.

The family did video chats every evening, she said, when Wayne was usually exhausted from the day’s work. In those video chats, he said evening prayers with his wife and children, usually a Hail Mary and an Our Father. The family attends St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Alexandria.

The video chat was a lifesaver, Kremer said. It helped make the time away more bearable, he said.

When he wasn’t working, he said, he did some sightseeing and some scuba diving.

Grateful residents offered them food wherever they went, he said, and he expected that most people returned 10 pounds heavier than when they left. Fried pork and rice made up much of the diet, he said, except for one night, when the crews feasted on Gold Star chili someone’s wife had sent from home.

Nevertheless, he missed his local eateries. He set an ambitious agenda for Friday: breakfast at First Watch, lunch at Chipotle and supper at the Hofbrauhaus Newport.

Contact the NKyTribune at news@nkytrib.com

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