Hours after he landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Friday, high-voltage lineman Walter Alomar said he was overwhelmed in a way that was difficult to put into words. The Bronx, New York-born and -raised Con Edison employee is part of a 100-plus crew of power line workers, technical specialists, and support personnel sent to the island to help restore power.
“It’s indescribable this feeling of love that I have for my country,” Alomar said of the island where his parents were born. “This is my land, the land of my ancestors. We have a duty and a responsibility to take care of it, to preserve and protect it.”
Alomar and his colleagues will be on the ground for five weeks restoring a weakened power grid that Hurricane Irma weakened and Hurricane Maria all but destroyed. They will be replaced by another crew until the grid is up and running. By all accounts, he and his coworkers have a massive job ahead of them.
The Puerto Rican Power Authority or PREPA as it is known for its Spanish acronym, has been reeling with a debilitated infrastructure from lack of maintenance and funds, even before two hurricanes hit it back to back in September. Nearly two months after 160 mile an hour winds ravaged the island, much of it is still without electrical power.
Hours before the crew landed, the capital city of San Juan was without electricity, again, after a setback on Thursday in a crucial line that serves the metropolitan area.
“I know it’s going to be tough,” he said of his assignment. “We may see things that have gone unreported, we will see people in desperate situations, suffering from lack of basic necessities,” he said, bracing himself. “I will do what I can with the skills I have.”
Alomar said he packed extra food and water to put in his truck so that he can give out to people he comes across as he travels across the island.
“It’s an emotional trip for me because Puerto Rico is everything, it’s my heart,” an emotional Alomar explained. “When you see your people suffering you want to do something about it.”
High voltage line workers repair and maintain live wires. The work is considered among the top deadliest on the planet, even more dangerous than firefighters and police officers.
“There is very little room for errors,” he explained “One little mistake can kill you.”
Ten years ago the 45-year-old never thought he’d been doing a job like this. He was a trainer at Bally’s Fitness looking for a career change.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do, just that I wanted to do something more steady,” he explained. He said he remembered that as a kid he was fascinated with the men who went into manholes.
“I used to see these Con Ed guys in my old neighborhood in Hunts Point and when I was looking for a new career I remembered them,” he said of the men he grew up observing in his New York City neighborhood. Alomar applied at the power authority, took a test, and began his career working in underground manholes.
“There is a high failure rate at this company because it is a tough job, but I kept studying, and taking tests,” he explained. “Almost a decade later, here I am one step from being at the top, the only step left is to be a Chief Line Man,” Alomar said proudly.
A cargo ship left a southern New Jersey port earlier this week with more than seventy trucks from Con Ed, Orange, and Rockland Utilities - all New York utility companies - equipped with tools and repair parts. Alomar and his fellow power line workers will start at the southern part of the island, fixing poles, running wires from poles to homes, street by street. Hurricane Maria was so powerful that it felled every single pole on the island.
He will get to see the island of his parent’s birth almost in its entirety and the thought warms his heart. By night Alomar is a history buff. A year ago, he and his wife wrote and directed a documentary about Puerto Rico, “Colonization is Extinction.”
“I started learning about Puerto Rico as an adult and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know,” he explained. “It’s been a hard history to learn, but one that I embrace fully,” he said. “Knowing it has empowered me, I am a totally different person today.”
“This assignment is the greatest one I have had,” he said. “To help my people in their most desperate time is just incredible.”