Ramsey man travels to Haiti to turn on the lights

For three weeks, Leon Richter helped bring something to the residents of Caracol, Haiti, that they never had – electricity.

Richter, a lineman for Connexus Energy, went to Haiti from Nov. 2 to 24 as part of a team from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s International Foundation.

Connexus Energy lineman Leon Richter (left) unloads his climbing gear from the truck under the curious gaze of Haitian residents. Photo submitted

Connexus Energy lineman Leon Richter (left) unloads his climbing gear from the truck under the curious gaze of Haitian residents. Photo submitted

Originally, the request was for three lineman to help install a regulator bank for a hospital, which would have taken one week, said the Ramsey resident.

But the job was filled quickly, Richter said.

When a second request came in for one lineman to work for three weeks installing poles and lines in Caracol, which is located on the northern tip of the island, Richter decided to go for it.

“It was a great opportunity to go to a third-world country and help out,” he said.

Although Richter has volunteered for years in the poorer areas of Minneapolis with the homeless shelters, all of his expectations of what he would find in Haiti were based on media coverage.

He figured the kids would be running around with few clothes on and looking hungry. Beyond that, all he knew was they did not have electrical power, Richter said.

While the children did not looked starved, finding food is the top priority in their families’ lives, he said.

Jobs are limited and those who work in one of the textile factories, run and managed by the South Koreans, only make about $5 a day, Richter said.

But a dollar of that is spent on lunch and another $1 on transportation home, he said.

“They really can’t afford anything except maybe the rice – and that’s the people who are working,” he said.

While Richter was in Caracol staying at the factory and hotel compound, there was a rumor that there were 90 jobs available in the factory.

The compound, which has eight-foot concrete walls topped with barbed wire and armed guards, was mobbed by hundreds of people, Richter said.

“My crew had to sneak out the back and work our way around the mob to get to the work site two miles away,” he said.

“It took the United Nations team and the local police to defuse the crowd.”

“They are begging for whatever work, whatever jobs.”

The local group working with the electrical team was paid $10 and that is huge money, said Samantha Neral, Connexus Energy communications and community relations.

Working conditions

As the crew dug out the holes for the electrical poles, they had to bail out water because of how close the city was to the ocean. Photo submitted

As the crew dug out the holes for the electrical poles, they had to bail out water because of how close the city was to the ocean. Photo submitted

The biggest adjustments for Richter were the weather and low tech line installation.

The pole holes had to be dug by hand because the boom truck with the auger did not work for the first half of the trip and once it was working, it had to go to the hospital job, Richter said.

To get to the work site, the crew would load the poles and wire into a Ranger pick-up truck and the crew of 10 would cram in, he said.

“We had five people hanging on the back as we drove the two miles on rough gravel roads. We looked like the hillbillies,” Richter said.

They had three local men shoveling the seven-foot deep holes in the clay soil, which would fill with water because they were so close to the sea, he said.

Water would have to be bailed out before the poles could be placed, Richter said.

The crew also picked up rocks wherever they could to put in the holes to help hold the poles, he said.

During his trip, Richter’s team placed 14 poles and replacing some of the existing poles with those that could carry additional electrical lines.

“Climbing the poles was a challenge,” Richter said.

While working on Connexus lines, Richter uses a bucket truck and is lifted to the lines.

In Haiti, Richter had to manually climb to the lines.

The wood is much harder than is used for Minnesota poles, Richter said.

“Our legs were getting banged up and bruised,” he said.

The special treatment given to the poles in Haiti makes the wood harder for the climbing hooks to sink in, according to Tom Hoxter, Connexus construction and maintenance superintendent.

At one point, Richter said he figured he would just have to trust that he would not fall.

“I started climbing with less force (on the climbing spikes),” he said.

The first time he fell 12 feet, burning away the skin on his arms as he tried to stop his descent.

Richter sharpened his climbing spikes and taped up his limbs after his second fall.

“I realized how lucky we are to have everything mechanized,” Richter said.

The weather also made it rough on Richter.

“It was 85 degrees to 90 degrees with 80 percent to 90 percent humidity,” he said.

“We started at 6 a.m. and by 8 a.m, you were all sweaty and ishy.”

The rainy season also started while Richter was in Haiti.

By the second week, “I thought it was hell on earth,” Richter said.

Crew members were working six days a week with little down time, he said.

He was kind of wishing he was on the East Coast helping with Hurricane Sandy repair and where the temperature was in the 50s, Richter said.

Reaction

While the crew was installing the 16 transformers around the town, 9,000 feet of primary wire, 9,000 feet of secondary wire and 24 anchors in the mile and half area, they always had a large audience.

“It was strange for them to see people climbing the poles,” Richter said.

Only the 12 people who purchased the electrical boxes were excited when the electricity was turned on Nov. 22, he said.

“The rest of the town was apathetic because they were not ready yet,” Richter said.

Richter tried taking pictures of the crowd while he was working, but was warned to ask permission first.

“You don’t want to make them mad as we are outsiders down there,” he said.

But Richter found out that because he was American, he was expected to pay for taking photos of the adults.

He talked to one man, who spoke a little English, who said, “You got money. We need money,” Richter said.

For the kids, Richter brought granola bars, mini-flashlights and lollipops.

The flashlights were popular, but they were handed out to only a few a day, Richter said.

“Their eyes would light up to get a flashlight or granola bars,” he said.

When Richter left Haiti, he gave the Haitian crew his t-shirts, jeans, hand tools and electrical gloves.

Overall, the trip was fun and it got him out of his comfort zone, said Richter, who had not been on an airplane in 30 years.

“We helped so many people and there was the joy and excitement of the kids when they got a flashlight,” he said.

Tammy Sakry is at tammy.sakry@ecm-inc.com

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