How One Integrator Copes, Flourishes in the Face of a Destructive Hurricane
SSI speaks with Stephen Spears, a systems integrator based in Puerto Rico, about his experiences after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. His company was profiled in SSI’s September 2017 issue.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Before Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Stephen Spears, proprietor of Bonneville Contracting and Technology Group, stood ready with his employees to put into action a recovery game plan.
Spears, an Indiana native who launched his systems integration firm on this island nation in the 1990s, had worked through half a dozen previous tempests. How his 65-member team would assemble and be deployed to customer sites in Maria’s aftermath was well-versed.
“Storms are money-making events for us,” Spears told me last week during a telephone interview. “For every storm we make a pre-storm plan. The day after the storm everybody is to get to the office by 9 a.m., and then we will strategize on what we can do from there.”
But not this time. Maria’s vengeance would have none of it. “In the case of this storm it was so significant that I couldn’t even get out of the suburb that I live in,” he said.
On Sept. 21, six Bonneville workers made it to the company’s headquarters, located in a densely populated area in the northwest part of San Juan. What they found upon arrival was a home base in tatters. With no means of communication, and the island’s roadways mostly impassable, the group hunkered down and began work to put the property back in order.
“The second day after the storm I made it to the office and we had like 10 people show up. By Monday after the storm we had 20,” Spears explained.
Spears described to me an island and its people that continue to struggle mightily some four months after Hurricane Maria struck at 6:15 a.m., inflicting widespread destruction and disorder rivaled by few other storms in American history.
The federal response to the island’s crisis was considered too slow from the outset, and Spears reports things are still ham-fisted with the recovery. He estimates that more than 40% of residents are still without power. Even hospitals remain woefully short on supplies. Law enforcement, too, remains besieged; the island’s police chief resigned in the wake of widespread looting and a spike in violence. Compounding matters, thousands of officers took part in a sick-in to protest the lack of overtime pay.
Through it all Spears and his team has remained enormously busy servicing existing clientele and taking on new contracts as part of recovery efforts. Some semblance of normalcy has begun to return.
“We get up very early and get home fairly late. I am fortunate I have power back at both my home and my office. We have air conditioning and lights at our office facility,” Spears said. “While we ran on generators for weeks, finally the power came back on so that part of the equation has gotten easier.”
Bonneville specializes in three disciplines: electrical contracting, telecommunications and electronic security. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, the company’s volume of work doubled. But not the electronic security piece. With electrical infrastructure in ruins across the island, security systems were rendered useless. Businesses, governmental agencies and other organizations immediately turned to guarding providers as a result.
“The price for security guards went up 60% overnight. When all of a sudden there are no systems you have to have physical security, and physical security here means armed guards,” Spears explained. “Especially in an environment where there is no power, there is no street lighting, there are no traffic signals.”
Bonneville’s electrical division was called on immediately to rebuild and service traffic signal systems, highway lighting and intelligent highway systems. Because the communications systems were down, Spears and his employees had to physically go see end customers eyeball to eyeball and only then be assigned work areas.
Road clearing was a big part of that work. “That was the very first thing we did,” Spears said.
The clean-up entailed removing power and communications poles, tangles of fallen cables, and the flotsam and jetsam blown about by winds that reached 155 miles per hour at landfall.
“Then we started doing power work for the power company and traffic signal work behind that. We are still doing both of those. The roadway clearing only lasted for the first six weeks,” Spears said.
Security Division Most Affected
Bonneville’s security division remains mostly dormant although some activity is beginning to return. Similar to New York City, San Juan is comprised of five borough-like towns. Bonneville does business with three of those, providing municipal video surveillance installations, among other security system construction and maintenance.
All three towns, as well as the Puerto Rico Police Department, nullified their service contracts almost immediately. Systems were either down or no longer existed. There was no power to run them even if they survived the onslaught of the Category 5 storm.
“Your standby power disappeared. The power that you had on standby you wanted to conserve for other things. The systems as we knew them all of a sudden were non-functional,” Spears explained. “The clients realized very quickly why should they continue to pay for something that had no value, and also in a lot of those cases the employees didn’t show up for work. The government here took the position they would pay people to not show up for weeks. So even if you had functioning [security] systems, which most cases you didn’t, there was no way to operate it.”
While all those service contracts remain sidelined, the customer accounts officially remain on the ledger. Bonneville has been painstakingly moving through a process of evaluating what it will take to rebuild and get security systems back online. The end users are then submitting reports to their insurance companies and waiting for claims to be processed and funds distributed before any renovations can commence.
Bonneville’s clientele extends to the U.S. Virgins Islands, which has also been devastated this hurricane season. Irma, said to be one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, tore across St. Thomas as a Category 5 storm on Sept. 6. Maria would follow later, cutting a path straight over St. Croix as it did Puerto Rico slightly to the south.
Among the destruction, laid to waste was a new paging system designed and installed by Bonneville at the St. Thomas Airport that integrated more than 550 paging speakers.
“The airport was wiped out. That paging system still has to be rebuilt,” Spears said. “The first system we put back online was at one of the larger marinas, which had a customs office. It became important fairly quickly to get that system back up so that customs could monitor who was coming in and out.”
Searching for Lessons Learned, Best Practices
Throughout the difficulties caused by Maria, Spears has been pondering best practices to apply in future storms that could limit damage to power, communications and security systems. That is a challenging proposition to say the least.
Spears: “When the power goes out and stays out, all of the systems that we build go down. They don’t come back up. So even if they survive the event they become worthless. Here the standby power systems went down because there was no diesel or gas to run generators. Or the generators burned up because they were never meant to work 24 hours per day, seven days a week, 30 days a month.”
The vexing question is how do you harden systems for the future that can withstand a cataclysmic event, and do that in a cost-effective way?
“I don’t know whether there is a solution to that, but it is definitely one of the issues that we are facing down here now,” Spears said. “Are your customers really going to want to build back better? Because there is a steep cost involved. Is it worth paying all that extra money to have a hardened system?”
Spears is involved with a local group of engineers who are searching for answers to such difficult questions. White papers exploring lessons learned have been drafted in an effort to help the island build back better. Telecommunication systems, in particular, pose maybe the biggest challenge to harden against a storm like Maria.
Wireless systems? Antennas disappeared. If the tower didn’t blow down, all the antennas were blown off of it. If the antenna didn’t blow off of it, the standby power went down; hence, there was no power to receive or send any information. Aerial lines also went down. Spears and his working group view the main solution to all this mayhem is to put everything underground.
“This is where the cost model comes into play – what is it worth? Is it worth spending 10x more to have a bulletproof system or do you just deal with it when it goes down,” he said.
And there is complacency and short-term memories to factor into any financial decision-making.
“One of the things I have seen from past storms is everybody remembers for one to two years,” said Spears, “and by the end of the third year they are going back to the cheap and easy.”
Immersed in Work to Ease Personal Toll
Spears counts his blessings that among his workers none suffered significant injuries during Maria’s wrath, although some experienced severe damage to their homes. Spears and his wife were also unscathed and rode out the storm together in their home, which received some damage.
There is an emotional toll in the weeks and months following upheaval in such aftermaths, Spears shares.
“These events will either send you into depression or they will energize you. I have always been energized by them, but there is a kind of PTSD [post traumatic syndrome disorder] that goes with these events because your personal environment has been turned upside down,” he said. “I always tend to worry more about others than I do about myself.”
When Maria’s path toward Puerto Rico was forecast to be imminent, Spears placed a stateside order to have 40 generators delivered. They were sitting on the dock in Jacksonville, Fla., the day the storm hit. He also had the same supplier send a tractor trailer load of bottled water, knowing from experience it was going to become an issue of major importance.
“That was basically to make sure that my employees could have some level of comfort and get back to some level of normalcy as quickly as possible,” he said. “We gave the generators away to my key employees as an early Christmas present. The generators got in two weeks and three days after the storm, and there were a lot of happy faces that day. I only had 40 generators, but a lot of my employees already had standby generators at their homes so they passed on the opportunity.”
The bottled water did not arrive until six weeks after the storm; however, the timing was fortuitous. Spears has been donating the water throughout devastated communities and to charitable organizations. He selected a dozen different facilities to supply water, including orphanages and senior citizen housing.
“There is a lot of joy that comes with that because you really feel like you are doing something,” Spears said. “You are working and making money, you are going to bill somebody — that is from the business side — but also you are helping the community you live in and helping it get back to its feet.”
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