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Perfect storm

Ian Harbison reports exclusively from Lufthansa Technik Puerto Rico’s facility in Aguadilla on the support operations that were launched in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria

The five-bay facility had already had a scare two weeks earlier, closing down on 6/7 September as Hurricane Irma passed close by but caused no damage or flooding. The second time was different, as Maria first passed over the island and then returned from a different direction with renewed force, causing severe and widespread damage.

Because many of the employees live locally, around 100 of them turned up on Friday. A management team led by CEO Pat Foley had developed an emergency plan two days earlier as Maria was approaching but this had to be modified with the loss of power. He notes that the ‘official’ plan was rendered useless for the same reason.

First priority was damage assessment, led by Georgi Georgev, Head of Production. One member of the team was Flores Ruiz Marcier, Facilities Technician, who is a master electrician and had been at the facility since it was being built. Knowing the building inside out, he was able to advise senior management on some more effective workarounds than were in the emergency plan. That they were accepted so readily is a matter of considerable pride to him.

All four aircraft in the hangar were safe and undamaged but the empty fifth bay, which doubles as a paint facility, had sustained some structural damage in one corner. There were numerous leaks in the roof membrane across all the bays. A large air conditioning unit on the roof was blown over, sending water cascading through the offices. The material store had side panels blown in and the dangerous goods stores was seriously damaged. Externally, part of the perimeter fence was blown down.

Relatively speaking, compared to other parts of the island, the facility had survived well.

However, like all of the island, the lack of water, power and communications, as well as with roads, fuel supplies and security (a curfew was in place for a short time, although aimed mainly at safety in black out conditions), were to have the greatest impact in the next few weeks.

Back in Europe, the total loss of contact with Aguadilla and the lack of information from Puerto Rico and US official channels had seen the activation on Thursday of a Situation Management Team (SMT), led by Torsten Raabe, Senior Director Material Management at Lufthansa Technik Sofia. He says there were large numbers of volunteers who came forward immediately. Contingency plans were being made when Foley managed to grab a few minutes of satellite phone time on Friday, having spotted personnel from a nearby US Customs & Border Protection post using one as he drove by, and was able to give a situation report to headquarters.

Over the weekend, such good progress was made with repairs to the facility that Georgev reported that some work could begin on Monday. Foley says this decision was made as part of a concerted effort to support the workforce. Every small step forward was an important part in maintaining morale, particularly as many still had no contact with family and friends on the island or abroad. To the same end, the company quickly reached agreements with several local restaurants that had somehow remained open to provide lunch on a daily basis, not just for employees but other agencies that were involved on site, for example, local police providing security. This ran for three weeks.

On Sunday, a home base was established at Lufthansa Technik Component Services (LTCS) in Fort Lauderdale, FL, with a storage area being dedicated to relief supplies. In Puerto Rico, the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, at the other end of the island, had reopened. This allowed the vanguard of the SMT, led by Bernhard Lindorfer, Manager Facility Development at Lufthansa Technik Sofia, and accompanied by quality assurance, IT and security specialists, to fly in from Fort Lauderdale on a chartered business jet, bringing with them some priceless satellite phones and limited supplies. The jet had been found with the assistance of Haskell, the US company responsible for the construction of the facility, as demand was extremely high, Maria having caused havoc across a wide area of the Caribbean – Raabe says two days would have been lost without this help. >>


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