Utility worker ready to return after hurricane relief

After 40 days of winter, many people dream of taking off to the tropics. But after 40 days in the tropics, a Duke Energy lineman is dreaming about coming home to Columbus.

“I’m anxious to come back because, for me, Indiana is the best place in the world,” Garry Hoff said from Puerto Rico in a telephone interview last week.

His dream will come true Thursday, when Hoff is scheduled to return to his Columbus home.

Hoff has been part of a 20-member Duke Energy team from Indiana that volunteered to spend two months in the northeast Caribbean Sea island. His assignment has been to restore electricity after two hurricanes, Irma and Maria, which struck Puerto Rico within two weeks of each other late last summer.

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It’s the third such mission for Hoff, who traveled to Florida after Hurricane Charley struck in 2004 and then to the western Gulf Coast one year later following Hurricane Katrina.

Calling the devastation left by Katrina the worst he’s ever seen, Hoff said the damage in Puerto Rico didn’t seem that bad upon his Jan. 14 arrival.

“The locals told me you couldn’t find a leaf on the island right after Maria hit,” Hoff said.

However, tropical conditions had already restored much of the destroyed vegetation by the time he arrived four months after the two hurricanes, Hoff said.

At least, that’s the way it appeared as he worked on the first two mountain ranges where he was assigned.

But when he reached the third mountain range, devastation from the two storms was still quite evident, he said.

“We’re working long, long hours down here — and in this terrain, it really wears on your body,” Hoff said. “But it’s been great doing this work because it makes you use your brain.”

As he strings hundreds of electrical lines down steep forested mountains, Hoff is grateful that heights have never bothered him.

“But I can’t describe how frightening it is to be in a huge bucket truck while going down an extremely narrow and winding mountain road,” Hoff said.

Making the experience even scarier are the local drivers they encounter who confidently zip up and down the roads, he said.

What has most impressed Hoff is how appreciative the mountain residents of the U.S. territory are toward him and the other Duke linemen.

“Never in my life have I seen a more grateful people,” Hoff said. “While we were on one mountain, a group flagged us down and gave me a Puerto Rican flag that everyone on the mountain had signed.”

Hoff described that moment as a highlight in his 19-year career as a lineman, including the past 12 years with Duke.

Although this is his third post-hurricane relief trip, Hoff still marvels at how well the staff at Duke Energy handles such complicated logistics, he said.

“From food and housing to bug spray, they always get whatever we ask for,” Hoff said.

Although most mountain residents are poor, luxuries and commodities available in the capital city of San Juan (population 355,000) are about the same as every other American city of a comparable size, Hoff said.

The only difference is that items shipped to any island nation will always be more expensive than what they would cost on the mainland, he said.

Compared to Indiana, the weather within Puerto Rico’s 19 mountain ranges has remained remarkably consistent, he said.

“It drops down to about 68 degrees every night, and the afternoon highs reach about 80,” Hoff said. “The only change comes from occasional showers that might cool things down two or three degrees.”

While that may sound like paradise to winter-weary Hoosiers, Hoff said he finds himself missing the seasonal changing of the Midwest.

But not nearly as much as he thinks about his wife, Camille, and his two adult children, he said.

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A total of 220 Duke Energy linemen and technicians from across the United States were sent to Puerto Rico on Jan. 14 to restore power to the hurricane-ravaged island.

Workers have been scouring the terrain for broken poles and downed power lines that, in some places, are buried under five months’ worth of overgrown vegetation.

One of the largest challenges has been stringing power lines up the island’s 19 mountain ranges.

However, Duke engineers were able to utilize drone technology to enable the stringing of lines through the most dangerous areas, as well as for other purposes.

Source: Duke Energy