SINT MAARTEN (CAY BAY) —Just days before the 2nd Anniversary of hurricane Irma, that devastated the island on September 6 2017, newly sworn-in Honourable Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure (VROMI), Christopher Wever praised the three GEBE employees who kept the power plant operational until 6:00 a.m. on that dreadful day as "heroes."
The three men were trapped inside a bunker type structure that houses the Control Room for all of GEBE's generators, for nearly 48-hours before they could leave. During this time the storm wind surged on the outside destroying homes and businesses including two of the utility company's structures that housed four engines.
Stephen James, Enacio Illis and Supervisor Wayne Jeffers told Minister Wever, on Saturday, August 31 during a visit to the Power Plant in Cay Bay, that they thought nothing of the work they did as it was what they were trained to do.
They were thrilled that for the first time in St. Maarten's history, residents were kept in the light for a very long period despite the high waves and winds.
GEBE's Chief Operation Officer Kenrick Chittick, who gave the Minister a guided tour of the facility, said the Company's investment in new air-cooling technology for the engines, was one of the reasons for GEBE to maintain its power supply during the storm. He said five years ago GEBE used water from the Sea nearby to cool the engines. The problem with that water cooling system was that when the sea level rose, the waterlines became clogged with debris. This clogging of the water lines often resulted in overheating and often because of that it was necessary to shut down the engines to prevent extensive mechanical damage.
Minister Wever said the news of the heroism of these men was very touching and he had to meet the men and thank them personally. "As a St. Maarten resident who benefited from having electricity for such a long period, I have to say thank you on behalf of the citizens of St. Maarten."
Minister Wever said, "These three men's bravery and dedication kept the power supply online. Because of that, residents had access to radio and television and use of their telephones to communicate with their families."
On the morning of September 6, 2017, the three heroic men saw the destruction taking place live outside their doors via CCTV Cameras installed for safety at the Power Plant. They were forced to decide on shutting off power to the island when the roofs of the engine rooms blew off, causing what appeared to be fire and excess smoke.
That was not their only concern, as they had to continuously monitor the power grid to see if there were interruptions as this could spell danger for residents who may have been exposed to broken power cables.
The men were trapped inside the building and could not get home to their families or even communicate with them for more than 24-hours.
Their shift system also requires that a colleague relieve them before they can leave the Control Room for safety reasons.
According to the three men, if the roofs of the engine rooms remained intact, they would have kept power for longer. Chittick told Minister Wever that GEBE had learnt some valuable lessons from Irma. They presently have Wartsila, the Company that designed the engine rooms, providing significant repairs to the buildings.
Once Wartsila completes the repair work, two more engines will go online, giving the Company added power to supply the island.
With the new state-of-the-art system in place, the Controllers can switch power lines within milliseconds of identifying a broken power line. They can identify areas where there are spikes in electricity in real-time, if that occurs and can also see where the load is increasing or decreasing in certain areas.
This connectivity is now possible using Fibre Optic Cables connecting each switch on the island to the Control Room.
In the past, a large panel was being used to provide information and control the power grid, but the Analog System provided far less information and were less accurate. The old system is now on display at the entrance of the Control Room as a reminder of how GEBE has grown where technology is concerned.