Fox 2 gets on the ground look at Ameren linemen restoring power in Puerto Rico

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PUERTO RICO - With about 75 Ameren workers from the St. Louis region are in Puerto Rico restoring power to hurricane victims, Fox 2/News 11 sent a crew for an exclusive report on their progress.

Five months after the power went out, an estimated 370,000 people are still in the dark.

In a way it’s much like it is at home after a storm, seeing Ameren workers restoring power to everyone who’s lost it.  Then, you think about the long hard road just to make it this far and it’s really not very much like home at all.

It seems like forever since the team packed up and left St. Louis on January 26th.

They’ve been working in the city of Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, restoring power to the homes dotting the mountainous surrounding area.  They’re working out of their fleet of 29 repair trucks plus vans and pickups shipped weeks earlier.

Traffic has been a constant challenge, squeezing those large trucks along the narrow streets and highways.

The sheer devastation, with damage untouched in spots for 5 months, has been hard to fathom.

The people keep them going, cheering the workers just for showing up and trying to help.

“They have been the most polite, nicest people,” said Marcus Forrest, an Ameren MO lineman.  “To be out of power for 5 months and still have the mindset they have.  They were happy to see us roll in before any light had turned on.”

Ana Matos lost power Sept. 5th when Hurricane Irma hit.  Mario followed 15 days later.

“It hasn’t been easy at all,” she cried.

They’ve reserved their daily allotment of gasoline to power the generator to cool their refrigerator for short periods. They’ve given up on luxuries like lights, TV, and computers.

The workers think of people like Ana when they spill into their hotel after 14-16-hour days, spill into their meal line, then go through a group meeting to update progress, plan for the next day, and address any safety issues.

They wake before five the next morning to do it all again.  After breakfast, they stretch their tired muscles, drive to a staging area, re-load their trucks, and go back to work.

It is both exhausting and emotionally draining.  Still, the “ups” have been outshining the “downs”.   As of Monday, the team has installed more than 150 power poles and transformers in treacherous terrain, more than 107,000 feet of power line, and restored power to more than 1,200 customers.

They don’t give up.

Russ Stumpe, a team leader, made it his personal mission to get Ana Matos’ power restored.

The first two tries after the distribution lines to her neighborhood were energized one morning failed.

There was a problem with a nearby transformer.  Even though replacement transformers were scarce, the team scraped up another one.   Hours of work later, the lights at her home were back “on” that afternoon.

5 months and 4 days after losing power, Matos turned on every last light in her house.

Moved to tears she hugged Stumpe.

In her eyes, he and his coworkers were heroes.

“I’m sorry I’m crying but I’m so happy,” she said, her face buried in Stumpe’s shoulder.  “I’m so happy!”

“That’s what we’re here for,” Stumpe smiled.

People like her make the assignment doable:  21 straight grueling work days away from home and family.

“It’s in our blood.  That’s what we do,” said Brian Doran, a supervisor from Ameren IL.  “We want to put the power lines up.  We want to be able to flip that switch for the lights to come on.”

“We all appreciate it,” said Matos, wiping tears.  “We all love you so much for giving your hearts to us and helping us when we most needed it.”

This group still has about 6 days to go before they get to come home. The work will be far from finished.  Another group of about 75 Ameren workers will take their place.  The company has committed to sending at least three waves of St. Louis area workers for three-week assignments.

Ameren is one of the electric companies that are members of the Edison Electric Institute now deploying nearly 1,500 additional restoration workers and support personnel to speed up power restoration in Puerto Rico. The plan is to increase the total number of such workers on the ground in Puerto Rico to more than 5,500.  It’s part of FEMA’s relief effort which now tops $1billion dollars.