Northwoods logging equipment company looks to help in Puerto Rico cleanup; workers frustrated by red tapeSubmitted: 12/05/2017
Ben Meyer
Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter

Northwoods logging equipment company looks to help in Puerto Rico cleanup; workers frustrated by red tape
Photos By Phil Kiefer

RHINELANDER - Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico more than two months ago. Parts of the island are still a mess, with tangles of downed trees, poles, and power lines.

Some of the most effective cleanup tools are machines usually used to log the forests of northern Wisconsin. But a local company is learning that trying to pitch in on the island can be frustrating.

"These people are suffering [down] there. It's not easy," said Sean Vann, who returned from Puerto Rico on Tuesday morning. "It's just a big ball of destruction on any road you take up into these mountain communities."

Vann is a sales rep for Ponsse, which makes logging equipment. Its North American operations are based in Rhinelander.

The Puerto Rican government says about a third of the island is still without power. Ponsse employees see a way to help.

"These Ponsses would be perfect for cleaning up all of these downed trees and debris," said Phil Kiefer, a Ponsse operator trainer who visited Puerto Rico three weeks ago. "We're actually cleaning up the beaches with them down there. We put boxes on the back of the forwarders so we can load all of the debris in there off the beach."

"Our equipment is well suitable to move the trees and clear up the lines for the power line companies to put new lines up," agreed Ponsse North America President and CEO Pekka Ruuskanen.

Despite the good fit, only a few machines are on the island right now, slowed by Puerto Rico government red tape.

"Our guys are ready to go. There are 60 trucks and as many people, just waiting. They've been waiting seven weeks. It's frustrating to wait," Ruuskanen said.

For example, a service truck currently parked in Rhinelander is headed to the island.

"This truck to get to Puerto Rico would be driven to Miami and then put on a barge," Vann said.

The barge trip takes about a week before reaching the island.

"It takes a while to clear them through Puerto Rico customs, so I imagine this truck would probably sit two weeks before we can even field it there."

That's aggravating Ponsse, who says it just wants to help the island with its slow road back to recovery.

"If that would have happened here in northern Wisconsin, it would have been a done, cleaned up mess," said Kiefer. "It doesn't seem like the government really wants to get out there and say, 'All right, let's get this deal done.'"

Ruuskanen said only three of his machines are on the island right now. He said it will take 20 or 30 to get the cleanup job done right.

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