Thursday, December 14, 2017

What is your estimate?


Your power is down to your island.  You haven't even had time to assess, and there are people who need answers today.  How many lines need to be repaired?  How many lines need to be replaced? How many towers do you need?  How many transformers?  How many insulators?

Just days before I arrived here in Puerto Rico, there were a hundred people in a massive meeting, and they came armed with forms and numbers and assistants who carried more of pieces of paper with more numbers. The cost estimator stood up, pointed to the spreadsheet projected on the screen, and explained (through a translator, for those who spoke less English):

What we have here is every region in Puerto Rico, with the number of miles of power lines associated with each area.  What we need you to do is help us figure out how much damage there was for each of the lines in your district.  We need two estimates:  how many poles per mile you think are damaged, and how many poles per mile you think are destroyed.

"Arecibo, there exists in your district 72 miles of the 230kv transmission lines.  How much do you estimate is damaged?  How much destroyed?"

The three people from Arecibo start working through their reports, looking for answers to provide  to the group, hoping to get the number right.  Guessing too low would mean that there would be areas left undone.  But it needs to be a serious estimate, and any fluff would take away from areas of the country that have need.

 The transformer lines - the big metal towers - are the easiest, because helicopters flew the lines and counted downed towers.  All those need to be replaced, and we can estimate damage to  the others. The answer is 50 miles.

"Good.  Now let's do the next one.  How about the 115kv lines?"

One by one, line by line, region by region, the estimates are provided, and once everyone agrees, Derek puts them up on the spreadsheet.

And that is the estimate that we have been using for our work on ever since.

We immediately ordered half of what the spreadsheet said we needed.  The spreadsheet reflected a wish list, and most of the system needs to be replaced - Puerto Rico has struggled to invest in and provide upgrades to the infrastructure.  That wish list is huge.

More importantly, though, we needed materials to start arriving.  Puerto Rico does not have the resources to produce wire, transformers, insulators, and poles (well, some limited production of poles from a local concrete company).  So everything has to come from the mainland.  By boat.  It is a logistical nightmare.  As we have refined estimates of damages, we have ordered more as needed.

84 days after the storm passed, and we are just now seeing some of the materials we ordered that first day.  Hangups in Savannah.  Issues in Jacksonville.  And other areas of the country are also needing the same resources, so we are competing for scarce resources and paying more for them, which means the money doesn't go as far.

The local power authority folks are running as hard and as fast as they can. They have hired crews and put thousands on the ground fixing lines and scavenging the parts from the downed lines.  The USACE-contracted crews are doing the same.  We are working in complimentary distribution, and connecting the grids as quickly as possible.  And it is working.  Today we have provided 60+ percent of the load that was recorded historically in the system.

That doesn't directly translate to people with electricity.  Just that we have power to the lines.  But it is an important step, and a needed step.  Now, the steps that follow have to be done very carefully.

One major issue has been dogging us from the start: who does the Last Mile?  The Last Mile refers to the final step - hooking up the power to the house, and giving people back their lights. Most people on the mission agree that we are here to provide temporary power to the people of Puerto Rico, not just power the grid.  So the Last Mile is seen as taking that final step, regardless of the liability issues, which are not inconsiderable.  I am working on another blog entry specifically on the Last Mile, so look for that in the coming days.

Our leadership has agreed, and we are under current direction (electricity pun, anyone?) to make it happen.  We are going to do the Last Mile.  And it will be expensive, difficult, and fraught with problems.  But dangit.  That is why we are here.

Estamos aqui. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Turn! Turn! (Too late).

All I wanted to do was get to the other side of the interstate.

This week, we got moved to a different office across town, and in this new space, I don't know my way around.  There is an center with a few shops right across the highway, and I decided on the first day that I wanted to stop by there on my way home.  The road that I use to get back onto the highway is not well marked.  The brilliant traffic engineers responsible for this masterpiece created a series of access tunnels under the highway that would make a hobbit proud.  It is a warren of unmarked burrows, and each one takes you to a different magical place.

My first entry took me on an epic, and completely unexpected, journey along the highway to the west.  I honestly have no idea how.

A half hour, three illegal left hand turns later, and a few near misses with massive buses and trucks, and I am back where I started.  Second try at the intersection:  OK, the left road took me the wrong way, so I will try the middle road, which will surely take me across.

And suddenly I am headed eastward on the highway.  And again..... I honestly have no idea how - I am convinced that the passage through the space-time continuum at this location does not follow normal rules of physics.  I swear there were four left-hand turns underneath the Escher print of a highway, and the road bent inward on itself, and I emerged in front of a tractor trailer who was barreling merrily along at 95 miles an hour.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Christmas Lights

When I got here two weeks ago, there were no functioning traffic lights, and the rules we normally follow for lights that are out of service do not apply here in the land of San Juan.

For that matter, I am not sure that I understand the traffic rules that do apply here under normal circumstances.  But we are definitely not in the land of "All lanes stop, and traffic proceeds in turns from the right".

In the post-Maria environment, driving in San Juan is a winner-take-all, devil-take-the-hindmost clustermess of the first order.  And rights of tonnage do apply: the biggest, baddest vehicles win every head-to-head confrontation. Literally.

There is also a scarification system in place, where battered vehicles have an advantage over pristine ones.  (Drafting on the bumper of a semi as it barrels through the intersections, riding the wave of scattered vehicles and honking sedans.... well, I find it to be an effective technique, when I can manage it.)  The driving, as I mentioned before, appeals to my chaotic nature, and brings out a different personality in me.  I love it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Vitoria Regia

I moved hotels yesterday, to a different area of San Juan, and was transported to a place in Belem, Para, Brasil, almost 40 years ago.

I had just turned eight years old.  Mom and Caroline and I flew down from South Carolina to meet up with Dad in Brasil.  He had been there for several months already, and was already thinking like a local: language, food, culture, pace, traffic; he had the rhythm down pat.

When the three of us arrived, Dad had some business to attend to for a couple of days, and so we stayed in Belem.  The place we stayed was the Vitoria Regia (pronounced Vit-TOR-eeya HED-gee).

When I moved into my new hotel yesterday, my mind flashed back to the Vitoria Regia, and I just laughed.

If you want an accurate review of the hotel where we stayed, check it out here or here.  The TripAdvisor reviews for my current hotel read much the same....
Victoria Water Lily.  Image stolen from here.

Vitoria Regia, which translates to the Queen Victoria, is a species of enormous lily pads that grow in Brasil and the adjacent British Guiana. I think that the intent was to name an enormous lilypad that was both fragile and strong after a strong leader.... and the intent of naming the hotel after the beautiful lilypad was to give a nice old world/new world vibe to the place.


There are no descriptive terms to explain the Hotel VR, but to call it a dump. The bathrooms are communal (the website says the hotel offers private baths now - an improvement, but all the reviews say that the private baths are all non-functional, which I would imagine fails to improve it).  The one bright spot I recall is the breakfast.

I was a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich kid, and I ate anything else under great protest.  I had a particular revulsion of bananas, because of the brown spots.  So when Dad tried to walk me through the difference between fresh bananas and what I was used to, I fought him.  "But I don't like bananas," I said, with all of the whine in my voice that an eight-year-old can muster.

Eventually Dad won, and I reluctantly tried the banana.  Dad watched me, and smiled when my eyes grew wide.  "That is SO different!"

I ended up trying all kinds of new fruits that were offered as part of the continental fare.  I simply could not get enough, and it opened my eyes to something new and strange and different.  And very unexpected.

I also remember Dad introducing me to a man who was a US Navy diver, and being impressed with his stories, and especially with the pin he gave me.  I still have it somewhere.  The old salt and I got to talking about things, and he told me stories that I have long since forgotten, and I just reveled in the new experience of new smells, new tastes, new sights, and new people, most of which spoke a new language.

Later that day, we went to a Portuguese restaurant, which had the most amazing shrimp creole ever - teeming with tiny river shrimp that were served in a spicy sauce over rice.... Again, Dad convinced me to try a food with which I was unfamiliar, and again, I was blown away with how good the fare was.

I believe that day was the day that set me on the course of being an appreciator of local cuisine.

So when I checked in to a sketchy-looking hotel with dingy, tired sheets atop a sagging, low-quality mattress, and which looks to be in dire need of a deep cleaning, I start looking around for food to try.  And my heart just starts to grin like a fool.

Not all that bad.  But not as good as it looks, either.

Place is not defined in my heart by the amenities, but by the people and the food.  I am meeting nice people at every turn.  I am eating great food at every hole-in-the-wall place and food truck I try.  I feel fortunate just to be allowed entry into the society, in any small way, whatever nook I can occupy.

At the end of the week, my stay at the Sandy Beach Hotel will come to an end.  When it does, I will probably not work too hard to extend my stay.  Eventually, I will want a place with clean sheets, with mattresses that were bought sometime in this century, and maybe even one with a bar in the lower floor where I can watch the game.

But until then, this Victoria Regia, inexplicably, will just make me smile.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


"Que mucha poca p**a madre!"

I am behind the wheel in San Juan, screaming with absolute glee at the top of my lungs at the idiot in front of me that just came to an inexplicable full stop in the middle of the intersection.  And in mid-stream profanity, it really hit me.

I am back home.

Lemme 'splain.

No.  There is too much.  Lemme sum up.

My wife is the quintessential southern lady.  She does not leave the house without makeup carefully arranged, and follows rules I never had to learn.  If you think Steel Magnolia, you have the right picture.  And then she begins to speak Spanish.....

And her entire personality changes, and she becomes La Patrona.  The result is not bossy, but her style definitely does not invite question.  She is commanding, in the way that military officers are commanding.  She is still unstintingly polite; she is kind and friendly, but she is just different.

I did not learn Spanish in the same halls as she did.  My Spanish is grammatically incorrect, rough-and-tumble ad-hoc mixture of vernacular and modismos (and more than just a few vulgarities) that I learned from talking with farmers, hunters and fishermen.  The place where I learned Spanish uses profanity pretty liberally, and more than once I have had to apologize for my coarse language when dealing with members of polite society.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Moustaches are as Cool as Fezzes

Bottom line up front: I am asking you to donate, at My facial hair has always been a little wispy. Way back in
high school, I followed my friend Brad’s sage teenage advice,
and shaved every day (I needed to shave once a week) to ensure that my beard would fill in. It never did. I have heard it all: "Tuft guy." "Cat died?" "Don’t worry; it’ll fill in." "I wish I didn’t have to shave twice a day...."
Horseshoe? Really? Only Hulk Hogan could make this style cool.
So why would I shave it all off and start again. On purpose? Because it gets me a chance to talk about getting checked out for prostate cancer. I work

Big Problems. And Thanks Giving.

Every day, I tilt at windmills. It is my job.

Deep in the heart of a very bureaucratic institution, I fight to get the projects I shepherd - I think of them as 'my projects' - through an arcane process.  I write memos using inscrutable acronyms, I call people, I prepare briefings, and I review documents to ensure that they are complete, reasonable, legal, and policy compliant.

And often I come home frustrated and angry because I did not make progress.  The wheels of the burrocrazy grind slowly, and they grind everything to the finest dust.  My job is a part of this process:  Big Problems become small problems; small problems get broken apart into tasks that comply with policy, and the tasks are all verified against checklists.

Endless checklists.

Today, I am working on something different.