Six Months After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s Road to Recovery is Being Made by Sea

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When the hurricane hit six months ago today, the U.S. government turned to Crowley for support. As a longtime Jones Act shipping line and leading provider of supply chain services between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico for more than 65 years, Crowley was in the unique position to provide responding agencies and the island’s businesses with dependable, adaptable services that could meet the scale of the crisis.

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“Every time a load was delivered, it meant a water in the hand of someone in need. It meant food on a Puerto Rican table. It meant we were helping to open schools and hospitals. It meant Crowley was a part of a big effort to save lives."

It’s been called the most logistically challenging relief effort the United States has ever managed. When nearly Category 5 Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, it left a wake of destruction that residents and emergency responders are still reckoning with.

The road to recovery for an island like Puerto Rico is different from mainland locations. The American territory sits about 1,000 miles away from the closest city in the contiguous United States. Transportation of cargo, supplies and equipment requires specialized vessels or aircraft, even in good times. Such a requirement adds complications during a crisis when lives are on the line.

When the hurricane hit six months ago today, the U.S. government turned to Crowley for support. As a longtime Jones Act shipping line and leading provider of supply chain services between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico for more than 65 years, Crowley was in the unique position to provide responding agencies and the island’s businesses with dependable, adaptable services that could meet the scale of the crisis. Government officials knew of Crowley’s reputation and capabilities from the company’s previous rapid expeditionary response efforts around the world.

Being a long-time Jones Act carrier, the company has strong relationships with Puerto Rico leaders, as well as U.S. government response agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The company has a long history of quickly loading Jones Act vessels with the relief aid – including FEMA cargo, food, water, generators, medical supplies, equipment and fuel – when needed for expedited delivery to the island. And when logistics solutions are required, Crowley has always found a way to provide them.

Since the San Juan harbor was reopened on Sept. 23, Crowley has managed the logistics and transportation of more than 100,000 TEUs (20-foot containers or equivalents) of government relief and commercial cargo needed to sustain life and begin the recovery process. The government relief effort, run primarily through FEMA and USACE, involved the transportation of tens of thousands of shipping containers loaded with water, meals and other life-sustaining materials, as well as transporting power poles, electrical transformers and other infrastructure. The Crowley-managed supply chain for the government stretched from the U.S. Northwest to the island.

Rebuilding the power supply infrastructure continues to be a work in progress for both residents and businesses – even as the next hurricane seasons begins in a few months. But Crowley and its employees are steadfast in their commitment to serving Puerto Rico.

“The mood on the island is one of resilience, togetherness,” said the company’s Wally Gonzalez, director, logistics, a Puerto Rico native with family on the island. “People are taking this all in as a part of daily life, but it’s taxing emotionally.”

Preparation and dedication

As the hurricane made landfall Sept. 20, responding to the challenge wasn’t just business for Crowley. The company has more than 300 employees based in Puerto Rico, adding to the personal stakes and challenges, but employees responded quickly before and after the storm.

“Crowley is Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico is Crowley,” said Gonzalez.

Amidst the obstacles and chaos immediately following the hurricane, Crowley’s Enrique “Ricky” Figueroa, senior director, operations, Caribbean services, and colleagues drove throughout the island to find unaccounted-for employees and check on their safety. Those who could safely return to work did so to clear the port terminal a day after the storm, and truck drivers found ways to safely navigate through chaotic streets that day. Some 60 employees reported for duty and began unloading the first vessel just two hours after the U.S. Coast Guard reopened the harbor.

“The day after the storm, we were very proud to be open for business. Crowley’s employees wanted to go to work because they recognized the severity of the situation and that the inbound cargo was much needed on the island,” said Figueroa, also a Puerto Rico resident. “They are also really committed and excited to be a part of Puerto Rico’s rebuild. Working for a transportation company plays a large role in that – we all recognize that.”

But local employees were personally impacted by the storm and needed to take care of themselves and their families, too. To provide relief, Crowley provided ice, food, washing machines and child care at the terminal. That helped Brenda Rivera, Puerto Rico resident and buyer at Crowley, return to the terminal within a few days as soon as the roads were safe.

“I was eager to come back to work because we know what we do here is indispensable for the island. Most of what we have comes from the states, from provisions to essentials. When all of that [cargo and aid] moves, conditions get better for all of us on the island,” she said. She added that she was equally appreciative that “Crowley even allowed me to bring my daughter to work with me.”

As soon as the storm left, Puerto Ricans were in dire need of necessities. Because air cargo was limited early on, U.S. carriers, especially Crowley, were counted on. The island needed expanded cargo services – and fast. The company’s new Isla Grande pier, cranes and terminal infrastructure upgrades sustained only minor damage and thus provided a stable discharge point for the cargo.

Foresight proved valuable early on. Crowley, working with the federal government, had pre-positioned vessels that could respond as soon as the storm passed, carrying 2,200 full container loads of food and aid cargo, as well as commercial goods with thousands more loads to follow.

“Other companies on the island couldn’t restore operations several weeks after the storm and we were supporting our own and getting operations up and running in a day or two,” said Crowley’s Ayesha Diaz, general manager, logistics, a resident of Puerto Rico.

Ultimately, Crowley’s Puerto Rico Services and chartering teams expanded the fleet from nine to 16 vessels, thanks to the addition of two company-owned and retrofitted, heavy-lift, flat-deck barges, as well as chartered vessels. The larger fleet in service ensure almost daily vessel arrivals and an upped capacity by 67 percent.

“Jones Act carriers have the robust capability to upscale the services already provided and call upon their existing network of logistics providers,” said Crowley’s Bleu Hilburn, vice president, business development, government services. “If a third party attempted this, they would be starting from scratch. In this case, we had employees and assets already in place. We could utilize and augment a first-class vessel fleet that was already serving the island. It was Americans helping Americans.”

As of early March, Crowley had worked 201 vessels and delivered more than 40,000 containers and 8,000 FEMA loads.

“Every time a load was delivered, it meant a water in the hand of someone in need. It meant food on a Puerto Rican table. It meant we were helping to open schools and hospitals. It meant Crowley was a part of a big effort to save lives,” said Jose “Pache” Ayala, vice president, Puerto Rico services, a native of the island.

Even with the unprecedented levels of cargo being transported by Crowley and other U.S.-flag carriers, immediate pick-up of containers lagged in the Port of San Juan, as did the return of empty containers to support the flow of supplies to store shelves and distribution centers. Roadways were blocked, virtually all communications were down, there was no electricity and a shortage of available truck drivers limited over-the-road transportation and distribution of the cargo coming in by ocean vessels.

Integrating solutions to aid Puerto Rico

To counteract this enormous challenge, Crowley developed early, specialized solutions. The company worked with government leaders and representatives of the food, retail and manufacturing industries to find solutions that could begin getting cargo trucked off the terminal to help restore the supply chain.

“We have been the premier transportation service provider to several responding agencies, providing everything from cross-docking in the U.S., shipping to the island and trucking of cargo across Puerto Rico,” said Gonzalez. “There are very few companies that can provide an end-to-end solution like Crowley is doing for an event of this magnitude. FEMA looked at us as the only transportation option to support this operation.”

The company sourced equipment as far away as the Midwest, adding 5,000 extra containers and hundreds of additional chassis to its Puerto Rico equipment fleet and it doubled warehouse space on the island to alleviate delayed turn times. That solution came from Crowley Logistics, whose intermodal team partnered with CSX to supply containers by train from Chicago to Jacksonville, Fla., to help provide cargo capacity.

To help improve fuel distribution across the island, Crowley supported the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA)’s emergency response fuel supply contractor Foster Fuels, shipping more than 130 of their fuel trucks to San Juan. When demand surged for CDL/HAZMAT-certified fuel truck drivers, Crowley Fuels – the company’s Alaska-based petroleum transportation, distribution and sales division – dispatched six of its own drivers from Alaska to support the island.

The rebuilding of the electrical grid in Puerto Rico has also presented challenges, so the government again turned to Crowley for solutions. Since November, the company has transported about 43,000 wooden, concrete and galvanized steel poles; over 10 million miles of wire; 7,000 transformers; and much more materiel aboard multiple flat deck barges.

But helping to restore power on the island of Vieques off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast presented its own challenges. Together, Crowley’s logistics, liner services and ship management teams chartered a specially sized barge to carry equipment and materials; provided the necessary logistics, freight forwarding and delivery services; and managed the stevedoring operation.

“I can’t think of a more important issue in the minds of Puerto Ricans than consistently having power back,” said Gonzalez. “The construction of this new grid will be to today’s standards, which should help prevent problems for future storms. It’s a big change for the better, even though conditions are difficult now.”

To supply efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico’s transportation infrastructure, Crowley again brought to bear a solution in February. The company’s logistics team worked closely with other internal Crowley teams to successfully transport bridge sections and an oversized, 119,000-pound IMT AF-160 drill, which were needed to set the foundations for bridges in the Utuado region to restore access to Rio Abajo, a remote mountain community.

The path ahead

With many reconstruction projects under way, Crowley employees see their friends, family and customers still trying to return to normalcy, especially in the central part of the island and mountains, where recovery projects take longer due to the infrastructure and locations.

“I think after Hurricane Maria everything changed. Nothing is like it was before,” Diaz said. “We have been going through a very hard six months. Lots of work supporting the customers, supporting the people, supporting all the different entities.”

A key part of the next six months will be continuing to rebuild the power grid: People count on it for their daily lives, such as using ATMs, and businesses need it to continue their recovery and conduct basic transactions. While the government of Puerto Rico reports 90 percent of power is restored as of mid-March, there are still pockets awaiting electricity. Water and phones services are above 90 percent, but smaller outages remain.

“Every morning, everybody wakes up. Obviously if you wake up and you don’t have power, that’s a constant reminder that the island is not the same as it was before the storm,” Gonzalez said.

As infrastructure is repaired, people and businesses are already preparing for the next storm season that starts June 1. The FEMA relief cargo volumes are already changing in preparation for another disaster.

“As a Puerto Rican, we will be a stronger and more aware Puerto Rico,” Gonzalez said. “And everyone will remember this storm as future ones will come. And maybe we’ll be a little bit better prepared than in the past.”

Crowley, too, is moving forward with a commitment to the island’s future.

The company will put two, new liquefied natural gas (LNG)-powered container/roll-on roll-off ships – fittingly named the Commitment Class vessels – into the U.S. mainland-Puerto Rico trade this year. Already the newly-constructed terminal, pier and cranes at Isla Grande have been put to the test with the enormous influx of commercial and government relief cargo – and each has performed exceedingly well.

As the new ships come online, they will discharge more cargo to support the recovery of the island – continuing the company’s commitment for another generation.

“We’ve been supporting Puerto Rico since ’54,” said Ayala. “We did it after Hugo and George. Once again, we are doing it. Six months to a year from now, we’ll still be responsible for bringing recovery materials to the island. This is all about Crowley making the impossible possible.

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