Photo shows a downed power pole and warehouse damage on the Molinos de Puerto Rico property
A downed power pole and warehouse damage on the Molinos de Puerto Rico property

DENVER — Extraordinary efforts are continuing at Molinos de Puerto Rico, LLC to maintain operations at the mill in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which is part of Ardent Mills' network of mills, ensure customers are supplied and assist employees affected by the catastrophic storm, said Bill Stoufer, chief operating officer.

In an Oct. 5 interview with Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain, Mr. Stoufer expressed pride in what the company has accomplished over the past fortnight in very difficult circumstances after Hurricane Maria struck the Caribbean island on Sept. 20 with devastating force.

Bill Stoufer, Ardent Mills
Bill Stoufer, chief operating officer of Ardent Mills

“We have an immense obligation to provide food ingredients to the people of this island, and that’s what we’re focused on,” Mr. Stoufer said. “It’s our moral responsibility.”

Ardent Mills supplies a significant portion of the grain based food ingredients on Puerto Rico. The complex includes a corn mill and rice mill, in addition to the flour mill with 10,000 cwts of daily milling capacity.

“We are running all three units on generators,” Mr. Stoufer said. “We’re running between 60% to 70% of normal.”

The mill was closed as a precaution as the storm approached, and production at the complex resumed about a week later.

“I can assure you we spared no expense in resuming operations,” Mr. Stoufer said. “The majority of our customers are operating again, and we are committed to keeping them supplied.”

Two days after the hurricane, Ardent Mills flew a team of five from the company's Denver headquarters to Puerto Rico to help staff assess damage and take the steps necessary to resume operations, Mr. Stoufer said.

A damaged sea wall from the Hurricane Maria storm surge with a still operational marine tower in the background. (Also on the property)
A damaged sea wall from the Hurricane Maria storm surge with a still operational marine tower in the background on the Molinos de Puerto Rico property

“They flew down and had to live in the mill with no power, no running water and no air conditioning to help get the facility up and running,” he said. “It was engineers, millers, health and safety specialists. They fixed what needed to be fixed to keep our product and people safe. There are more repairs that will need to be completed in the future.

“Numerous vendor partners have sent people as well. We are so proud of how everyone has performed in incredible conditions. Even now it is not a pleasant situation — 90% of the island is still without power.”

Although there were no reported injuries, many of its team members have experienced significant losses to homes and property. The company has about 100 employees at the San Juan mill. Ardent Mills employees have donated money to help team members in Puerto Rico, and Ardent Mills is matching employee contributions. 

Recognizing the extraordinary disruptions in their employees lives, Ardent Mills is helping in numerous other ways, Mr. Stoufer said.

“Even though we are operating at 60% to 70% of normal, all of our employees are being paid for a full work week, whether they are able to work or not,” he said. “They need to recover at work and personally. We are now feeding our employees when at work — breakfast, lunch or dinner, depending on which shift they are working.

“We have running water and have over 100 five-gallon collapsible containers so they can take fresh water home after work. Less than half the island has running water.

“We have made arrangements through business partners for employees so that they can get gasoline for their home generators and for their cars.

“We have sent diapers, batteries and cooking stoves home for those who need it.”

 At its Denver offices, Ardent Mills has employees from Puerto Rico whose family members have been affected by the storm. The company is doing what it can to help establish communication channels so team members can connect with family and let them know how they are doing, Mr. Stoufer said.

“This was literally the worst storm in 90 years,” Mr. Stoufer said. “When the hurricane hit the island, winds were 1 mile per hour less than a Category 5 storm. That’s very different from the storms that have hit Puerto Rico in the past. To understand the magnitude, the scale of what this does to your life as a person and professional can’t be overstated. Everything gets turned upside down.”

Mr. Stoufer said Ardent Mills will continue to do what is possible to help its employees, but the situation will be difficult for the foreseeable future.

“They’ve settled in a new norm,” he said. “The new norm is not fun for the team. It isn’t fun when you are coming into work for air conditioning and a semblance of normalcy in your life.”

Stoufer had high praise for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others providing assistance.

“FEMA has been fabulous, trying to get us information we need,” he said. “Again, until you see devastation, you can’t understand. It’s different than on the mainland. It’s an island, and you can’t do things fast.

“So much work has been done by aid groups to clear the roads. It’s a unique dynamic of the hurricane to have so totally wiped out the infrastructure.”

Widespread shortages of basic necessities such as food and water have been reported in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and distribution of these items has been difficult because of the extent of the damage. U.S. President Donald Trump on Sept. 28 waived the Jones Act, which officials had said was making relief efforts difficult.

Ardent Mills recognizes the importance that it continues to do its part to help.

“We are keeping up with customer demand,” Mr. Stoufer said.