Puerto Rico’s extensive power loss in the wake of Hurricane Maria last month has left businesses struggling to get back on their feet.
A team of professionals from Interstates in Sioux Center has been in and out of that country for nearly two weeks helping a customer regain power so it can produce food again. One member of the team is Jake Ten Haken, Hull, director of integrated services at Interstates.
The customer is Ardent Mills and it supplies a significant portion of the grain-based food ingredients on Puerto Rico. It includes a corn mill, rice mill and flour mill and is located near San Juan.
Maria, the intense Category 4 storm, hit Puerto Rico Sept. 20, and the Interstates team of seven men arrived at the plant by Sept. 24. They were able to get into the country via private plane. Ten Haken returned Sept. 27.
A powerful scene greeted them at the Puerto Rican airport.
“The airport was jam-packed with people trying to get off the island,” said Ten Haken. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Even though the drive from the airport to the plant wasn’t very far, the team saw a lot of destruction.
“The trees looked like they’dbeen dead for five years,” reported Ten Haken. “All the bark was blown off and they were leafless. Lots of the trees were down and the roads were only partially cleared.
“We also saw a lot of power lines and poles blown over and traffic lights weren’t working. Lines for gasoline were extremely long. People were lining sidewalks, under umbrellas, carrying any container that would hold gas. We drove past a refinery and saw a line of vehicles three blocks long; all waiting for gas.”
When the workers arrived at Ardent Mills, they went to work assessing damage done to the business and deciding if the building was safe to occupy, determining what it would take to make it operational, and getting the mill partially operating with generators.
The business had three generators — one each for the office, elevator and mill.
“We were very fortunate they had just bought a generator for the elevator two days before the hurricane, but it hadn’t been hooked up,” said Ten Haken. “And we had to make sure the other two were working.”
Another challenge was figuring out what parts of the plant could run at a time because the generators didn’t provide full power.
It was slow and frustrating work.
“We’d fix one thing and think it was good but then we’d turn around and something else would break,” recalled Ten Haken. “We hooked up the generator and then waited several hours for diesel. When it got going, the fan belt from the generator shredded. The next day we figured out how to make a fan belt for a 30-year-old generator and then the diesel lines started leaking. We never completely had anything fixed. Plus, generator power is not so good.”
The Interstates team stayed in the plant and ate food they had brought from the U.S. The third floor of the plant had a gym with locker rooms and a kitchen. The men slept on air mattresses in the gym. Without power, they didn’t have running water, but they used the fire pump to pressurize lines so they could take showers at the end of the day.
“We brought in things like granola bars, peanuts, almonds and protein bars,” said Ten Haken. “We basically ate snacks every day.”
With all three generators running, the Interstates team got the plant functioning at 60 percent capacity.
“The plant should be able to run at that level until permanent power is restored. But I think that is months away,” added Ten Haken.
He was back in Puerto Rico last week as Interstates continues to improve the mill.