SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Not long after resuming operations following Hurricane Maria, Molinos de Puerto Rico, LLC was running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. While a robust pace has been maintained ever since, employees at the Ardent Mills facility in San Juan continue to struggle to regain normalcy in their lives together with the other 3 million-plus residents of the U.S. territory in the Caribbean.
The roster of mill employees without power includes Jon Stuewe, president and general manager of Molinos de Puerto Rico. After work in the evening Mr. Stuewe returns to his San Juan apartment where he, his wife and daughter cook dinner using a camping stove that sits atop his powerless electric range.
“We run the refrigerator with generators,” he said. “When you face a situation like this, you become inventive. I bought a transformer and wired it into the breaker box in our apartment. It allows me to turn on lights from regular light switches. But the dryer won’t work, so we hang the clothes out on a clothes line. The generator gives us enough power to run the hot water heater so we can take hot showers. It’s a timing thing.”
Compared to others at the company, Mr. Stuewe considers himself fortunate. While no one was injured from the devastating Sept. 20 storm, 20 of the mill’s 100 employees lost everything, Mr. Stuewe said in a Jan. 18 interview with Milling & Baking News.
A Puerto Rico resident for more than 20 years, Mr. Stuewe said the difficulties faced since the storm have not been overstated.
“If you go into San Juan in the middle of the day, your first reaction may be, ‘This looks kind of normal,’” he said. “As it gets darker you begin to realize there are no street lights or stop lights. A mile or so outside of San Juan you begin to see that some places have lights and others are dark.”
Mr. Stuewe estimated that two-thirds of Puerto Rico now has power restored and almost 90% of the population has potable running water.
“That means 10% of the population doesn’t have water yet,” he said. “That’s 350,000 people without water. And 1 million don’t have electric power. The power authority has been working feverishly since the storm to restore power. But a lot of businesses have never reopened, including ones that ran as long as they could on generators.”
After the hurricane, Molinos de Puerto Rico ran for nearly two months before power from the grid was restored, operating instead with 4,000 kva (1,000 volt amp) of generating power.
The Molinos de Puerto Rico complex includes wheat, corn and rice milling operations. Its Amapola brand is the island’s most popular family flour and retail corn meal brand. Molinos de Puerto Rico products are sold beyond Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and mainland United States.
Mr. Stuewe estimated the mill consumed 5,500 gallons of fuel per day to generate power so Molinos could continue producing food for consumers on the island. Since power was restored, the company has lost power only twice (and relied on generators).
“Once we got started, we were swamped with orders trying to get wheat flour, corn flour and rice,” Mr. Stuewe said. “Run time is still heavy, but not as much. Before the storm the facility usually ran six days a week. That’s about what we’re running now.”
The government of Puerto Rico long has faced severe financial challenges. Those have worsened since the storm, something that is reflected in the worsening security situation on the island, Mr. Stuewe said.
“Crime has spiked on the island in the wake of the storm, but we continue to focus on team members on how to keep themselves safe whether at work or home,” he said.
Even before the hurricane, Molinos de Puerto Rico engaged a firm for security at the mill, and the facility has not experienced difficulties (though one employee was subjected to a violent attack returning home from work one evening).
While no one was fully prepared for a direct hit on Puerto Rico by a hurricane with the force of Maria, Mr. Stuewe, who has headed the Puerto Rico operation since 2008, said Molinos de Puerto Rico was not caught flatfooted.
“Before the hurricane season each year we try to fill our elevator, which has roughly 3 million bushels of storage,” he said. “Within a week after the storm, the unloading of ships resumed.”
Similarly, even before deliveries resumed following the storm, the mill began pre-positioning flour for shipment.
“It took a while to get everyone back on line,” Mr. Stuewe said. “Most of our major customers have generators. They were fired up within three to four days of the storm. We had trucks filled with flour. As soon as roads were cleared we shipped.”
Four months later, most, but not all, transportation problems have been resolved.
“It’s just a free-for-all at traffic lights,” Mr. Stuewe said. “Kind of go on your own. Everyone drives defensively. Major intersections get backed up.”
While the mix of business at Molinos de Puerto Rico has not changed dramatically, Mr. Stuewe said a number of smaller retail bakeries were severely damaged and have not resumed operations, cutting somewhat into bagged flour operations. Family flour business is in line with pre-hurricane levels.
Many hotels in San Juan aren’t running. Most restaurants operate, but with limited menus, he said.
Mr. Stuewe credited the rapid arrival of an Ardent Mills team just after the storm with playing a crucial role in the prompt resumption of operations. The group assessed damage and helped with necessary steps to resume operations safely. Engineers, millers and health and safety specialists lived in the mill with no power, no running water and no air conditioning.
“The team who flew in even had to deal with a bat flying around the stairwell where some of them slept,” Mr. Stuewe said. “But seeing this team’s effort helped lift everyone’s spirits.”
Quickly restoring the mill water system was necessary both for the safety of mill operations and for employees to take potable water home from work. The company installed clothes washers and dryers on site, provided three hot meals daily and even made a barber available. While power was down, employees did not have access to banks, and the company advanced cash and provided fuel as needed.
William R. Stoufer, chief operating officer of Ardent Mills, said he has been impressed by progress he has seen in eight days he has spent on the island in two trips since the storm.
“After my last trip, I was glad to see real signs of improvement that are happening faster than I would have thought possible,” he said. “The local food industry in Puerto Rico did and continues to do a great job getting food to Puerto Ricans. While food is of key importance, we learned, it is about jobs, family and providing our team with a sense of normalcy for part of the day.”
A longer-term program for repairs and replacement of damaged packaging is underway.
“There are a number of roofs we need to completely replace,” Mr. Stuewe said. “There are a couple other peripheral repairs needed.
“There’s no way to prepare fully for an event of this scale, but we have put new systems in place, like an ultraviolet water treatment system, that will help us have clean water supplies permanently. You learn from these events,” Mr. Stuewe said.
“When we weren’t operating at full capacity, team members were asking, ‘What else can I do? Is there anything to clean or fix?’ They appreciated having the mill to come to, and we appreciated their ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to getting through this crisis together,” he said.
“Serving” is one of Ardent Mills’ four core values (with trust, simplicity and safety), and Mr. Stuewe said successful company-wide efforts to raise funds for colleagues adversely affected by the storm demonstrated the embrace of this value. He said Ardent Mills employees have donated more than $25,000, and the company has contributed another $40,000. He expressed his admiration for how the company’s Puerto Rico employees have managed.
“You just adapt,” he said. “For the most part, everyone who sustained bad damage moved in with family members or has rebuilt.”
He also identified safety as a value demonstrated affirmatively over the past several months.
“We are proud to say that even during the chaos of the hurricane and the continued recovery, our focus has been on safety of our people, and our product,” he said. “Molinos has continued to run safely, without a recordable incident.”
Asked how conditions may differ three months from now, Mr. Stuewe said his greatest concerns relate to the potential for lasting damage to the Puerto Rico market, echoing Mr. Stoufer’s comments about “normalcy.”
“What we’re most interested in is how much emigration has occurred,” he said. “What is the net effect? Our business is based on base consumption of food. In 90 days I expect we will have a better idea of what has changed. The school system has really taken a hit. Many residents have left due to concerns about childhood education. There was a lot of damage and concern about how the schools are funded.”
Two mill employees have relocated back to the U.S. mainland, largely because of issues related to their children’s education. Island-wide, emigration numbers are thought to be very large.“It’s maybe 300,000 people,” he said. “Right now we are operating full. I’m concerned about future volumes. How many mouths will there be to feed. And what will happen with the government. It basically was bankrupt before the storm hit.”