MATANZAS.— The full length of the waterfront in the city of Matanzas, along the island's northern coast, was one of the prime victims of the hurricane. In this stretch, known as the industrial zone, many of the facilities closest to the water were wiped out. It is here where the Antonio Guiteras thermoelectric plant is to be found.
The sea water circulation station fell like a house of cards. Structures that served as breakwaters, made of seven rings of cement weighing close to 70 tons, were swept forward, landing on top of the station, indispensable to the plant's operation.
In the blink of an eye, dozens of men and pieces of equipment arrived, moving rapidly as if the plant were on fire. Operators and combined forces began a long effort to reestablish the plant's generating power, in a whirlwind of activity that has lasted over more than a week.
Capturing a sense of the mood there was easy. It could be read on the faces of workers.
COUNTING THE HOURS
Any time the Guiteras suffers a breakdown or some rare accident, the most highly trained specialists are called in. Always among the members of this select group is Alcides Meana, a lead engineer, now retired, who worked on the plant's foundation. No one knows the Guiteras like he does; he can describe its smallest detail.
This electrical engineer, a calm man in appearance, barely slept for days. Along with the plant's managers, he was intent upon getting through the bad moment. Granma spoke with him during the week following Irma, which struck this area September 8.
He recalled that he first arrived here in January of 1982, "This was scrub, coastline, cliffs, with a few vacation houses around. At that time, they were conducting the geological investigations needed to begin the project.
"The country had decided to invest in a thermoelectric power plant, given the increased demand for electricity. This area was chosen because of the bay and the possibility of capturing sea water to cool the system - a single machine with the capacity to generate 330 Mwh.
"It was constructed in six and a half years. One of the big stumbling blocks was the appearance of a crack right beneath where the turbine was to be. It was an opening of some 30 meters straight down below sea level, even navigable for a kilometer and a half in the direction of the city of Matanzas.
"It was disconcerting and delayed the project. After the relevant studies were done, we proceeded filling it with rock and following that, cement. Then a slab bridge was cast, placed from one side of the crack to the other, and on top of it we laid the turbine's foundation. Another significant setback was Hurricane Kate, which destroyed all the temporary structures at the work site.
"We finally finished in 1988, and it was synchronized with the national grid beginning in March that year. Fidel was here with us; he toured the plant, and talked with the workers."
Alcides, why is so much importance placed on the Matanzas thermoelectric plant?
Because it is a unit with a single plant capable of generating 330 Mwh, and does so at a low rate of fuel consumption. It provides great stability to the national grid, one of its principal bulwarks.
Could you describe the extent of the disaster caused by Hurricane Irma?
The worst consequence of the hurricane was the collapse of the building housing the circulation station, responsible for extracting sea water to cool the thermal system. Without it, the plant cannot function.
The wave breaking protective system along the coastline collapsed. The power of the waves moved blocks of incredible weight and they struck the pumping station. The hypochlorite plant also suffered damage. The machine room was flooded almost a meter, and of course we have to disassemble the equipment, take out the motors, clean them, and give them some maintenance, remove the humidity, reconnect them, and test them. These are collateral tasks.
What was the strategy taken to resolve the problem, to organize this comeback?
The essential goal was to determine how, in the first place, we could get one of the two pumps going, that would allow for the generation of up to 230 Mwh. In a second stage we would repair the second pump and build a provisional shed to protect the equipment, while the permanent building for the pumping station was constructed, which wouldn't interfere with the plant's functioning, and could be designed taking into account what happened.
It's clear that the tasks are not cursory. Thus far, some 5,000 cubic meters of rubble has been removed from the affected area. The most serious challenge at this time is cleaning the four aqueducts to the still water pool. A maritime dredge, with the help of several divers, are working to remove rubble and allow access to the sea - an extremely complex task.
Who is participating in the recovery work and what equipment is available?
Mostly forces from the Varadero Ministry of Construction brigade, and that in Matanzas, as well as Maritime Works, and the Thermoelectric Plant Maintenance Enterprise. We have not been short-handed. Everyone has come together as a single man. The powerful hydraulic hammers for the large demolitions are impressive. Among the pieces of equipment, we have bulldozers, front loaders, and cranes that can lift from 30 to 100 tons.
Is there some situation that could delay the work or aggravate the damage?
The arrival of another hurricane would be very unfortunate. Of concern technically is the work underwater to clear the aqueducts from the sea to the pool, one of which has been 50% opened.
Can any lessons be drawn from this lamentable experience?
Everything gives us some kind of learning. In this case, for example, it can be seen that the circulation station needs a different design, something more resistant, to face stronger weather events. The wave breaker wall could be similar, but with another, more reinforced structure.
It is no exaggeration that all of Cuba is following the developments here at the Guiteras. More than a week after the storm, a ray of hope can be seen. How close are we to the start up?
The entire area around the circulation pumping station and the hypochlorite plant has been cleared of rubble. The necessary demolition of some wave breaker wall blocks has been completed. The discharge canal is practically cleared, and progress continues on collateral issues, like the bailing of wells and the extraction of motors to again reestablish plant operations.
Things are now seen with more clarity. By the end of this week, we should start up the first pump.
What does the Guiteras mean to you?
A great deal. The first large project I participated in from start to finish.