Whitefish Energy CEO reflects on herculean effort

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Andy Techmanski had his eye on the weather reports coming out of the Caribbean in early September last year as his crew was wrapping up two power-line projects in the state of Washington.

Hurricane Irma had just delivered its powerful punch to a band of islands, including Puerto Rico, and parts of Florida.

Techmanski, the chief executive officer of Whitefish Energy, contemplated his next move.

“We had all these guys assembled, and essentially we knew we had the right crew structure and skill set to help the folks,” he told the Inter Lake, recounting his decision to inquire about power restoration work in Puerto Rico.

Techmanski was familiar with the area. He had done work on the island of St. Thomas and had vacationed several times in Puerto Rico. He knew the kind of equipment they’d need to restring power lines through jungle and mountainous terrain.

Techmanski used Linkedin to blanket email several unknown PREPA employees, offering Whitefish’s restoration services. One engineer replied and provided Techmanski with PREPA’s procurement contacts that would be managing the restoration efforts.

Techmanski reached out to Ramon Caldas, procurement manager of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, offering his company’s special skills in working in rugged terrain. The power authority was interested, and asked Techmanski to submit a proposal including rates and construction and mobilization plans.

Then Hurricane Maria descended on Puerto Rico with a vengeance less than two weeks after Irma.

Compelled to find a way to get down there, Techmanski got in touch with PREPA authorities as they were assessing the damage.

“Communication slowed down substantially. There was no power, no internet, limited connectivity,” Techmanski recalled.

He was able to make short calls via satellite phones, and the hit-and-miss communication from island officials was an SOS for help.

“They wanted to enlist our help as soon as possible and proceed with a contract,” he said.

Getting to the island was dicey.

“We made the decision to get down there to assess the damage and assess our risks,” he said.

Techmanski and three of his crew members chartered a plane. He remembers sitting on the airport tarmac in Dallas at 3 a.m., wondering if they could get there and what they’d find. It was pure luck that PREPA officials managed to meet them at the airport, given the magnitude of the storm damage, and that the last communication with Techmanski regarding this visit was 2 days prior. They proceeded to a PREPA helicopter and began flying and assessing the transmission line damage, and then onto a candlelit conference room to negotiate a contract before scrambling back on the plane and flying out with just a half-hour to spare before the country’s air space was shut down.

“We rushed through the contract, because I knew once we leave, I may not be able to talk to these people,” he said.

The crew retreated to its headquarters in Whitefish and continued to tweak a mobilization plan, figuring out “what we’d need for money to get things on and off the island.” “None of us had ever shipped anything to Puerto Rico,” he noted.

The deal was that Whitefish Energy would get $3.7 million upfront. The power authority delivered, though it was tricky finding a bank to make the money transfer amid the storm damage. The money was delivered to Whitefish Energy on Oct. 1, and the next day Techmanski was back in Puerto Rico with a dozen workers. The crew quickly grew to 150 within two weeks.

A little bit of serendipity went a long way for Techmanski. He had stayed at the InterContinental Hotel in San Juan enough times to strike up a friendship with one of the bellhops. That hotel worker, now out of a job because the hotel was shut down amid storm damage, was able to coordinate resources for Techmanski.

“His family owned a tour company called Hillbilly Tours. They had tour vans we tapped into because we needed them,” Techmanski said. “They were our translators, our drivers; they helped us tap into the hotel network … We had a large local contingency [because] they were out of business.”

The power authority had only 74 rooms available at the Verdanza Hotel, so Whitefish Energy established a group to handle not only food and water but also lodging for the growing crew.

“We hired 100 percent of [Hill Billy Tours’] staff, used every person they had who was bilingual. They were integral. It helped streamline things,” he said.

As the work commenced, Whitefish Energy’s workforce swelled to 560 people using more than 600 pieces of equipment. The company brought over 2,500 tons of equipment, including 400 trucks, cranes and excavators, as well as five helicopters.

Getting the equipment there was laborious and involved several airports and shipping ports. Shipping lanes were congested in the wake of two devastating storms.

“We continued to lobby the Army Corps of Engineers to assist us,” Techmanski said. “They had a lot more logistical resources, but we weren’t under contract with them.

“We didn’t have field resources,” he explained. “Along with bucket trucks, we were sending crates of water and emergency food rations, and were packaging 55-gallon tanks of fuel.”

Trucks shipped to the tattered island had to be stripped of most of their fuel before they could be shipped, which cost valuable time because they had to be fueled up after they arrived. Contractors who showed up later had the benefit of gas stations that had reopened for business.

“I like to say we became a logistics company that did a little power work,” Techmanski said. “We were a solution center.”

Thankfully, he added, Whitefish Energy was able to establish a partnership with the local Air National Guard in getting equipment assembled.

A big obstacle was utility access roads that hadn’t had any right-of-way maintenance since 1999, the year that part of Puerto Rico’s budget went away, Techmanski said. Huge trees had grown up, blocking the access, so the first task was bringing in bulldozers and excavators to re-establish the roads.

Navigating across the island’s sharp-edged reef rock was another deterrent.

“The first road we built we had nearly 100 flat tires, and we started shipping tires over,” Techmanski said.

Helicopters were pivotal in the work, but it took sheer manpower, too, to begin restoring the island’s shredded power grid.

“We would have to drop people down into the middle of the jungle for weeks with chain saws to free up conductors,” Techmanski recalled. “It was the most extreme access I’ve seen in my career.”

He described the terrain as the bottom side of an egg carton, one mountain after another.

Soon after its arrival, the Whitefish Energy team realized how ill-equipped the power authority was in terms of available resources.

“That’s why they went to private enterprise,” Techmanski said.

Whitefish Energy invested several million dollars in gearing up for the job, Techmanski said, including the purchase of a global communication center from Columbia Falls-based Nomad Global Communication Solutions.

“People were leaving their jobs and coming to work for us,” he continued. “I had hundreds of calls from potential subcontractors … we took a lot of Montana and Pacific Northwest linemen and technical staff. When things fell apart it became very disheartening.”

Techmanski noted that all of his employees have been paid “100 percent.”

By the third week of October, “blogger traffic began to report false news on our company and their perception of PREPA,” he said. Before long, the power authority bowed to political pressure from its own government and Whitefish Energy was asked to stand down from its work.

“The politics around it started to sink their teeth into it,” he said. “The [Puerto Rico] governor decided it was in their best interest to distance themselves from Whitefish Energy.”

Even after Whitefish Energy’s contract was pulled, a 30-day cancellation clause enabled the company to keep working, and it did so in good faith, not knowing at the time that 11 months later it would still be owed over $100 million of a $141.1 million contract.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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