From the air Puerto Rico looks every inch the island paradise – cloudless azure skies, endless sandy beaches and sparkling Caribbean waters.
As my plane begins its final approach, the picture shifts and reality begins to focus.
A patchwork sea of blue stretches below and it takes a moment to realize that it isn’t water, it’s the roofs of the houses and businesses below. I gaze at the FEMA “blue roofs” and tarps as I begin to register the damage that stretches as far as the eye can see.
Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category Four storm on September 20 with sustained winds from 130-156 miles per hour, one mph less than the threshold for Category Five. The storm, striking an island already severely impacted by Hurricane Irma, caused catastrophic damage, leaving millions of residents without power, potable drinking water or communication.
In the United States we get used to the mobilization of resources – excited photos appear across social media as line trucks begin to roll and recovery is anticipated. Here, 50 percent of the population is still without power 79 days after landfall and although 1-389th Regiment, 98th Training Division Soldiers are amongst those affected, they have been out since the early days of recovery, determined to assist their fellow Soldiers and Puerto Ricans.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
With cell towers down, no power on the island and a limited accountability of troops, the drill sergeants from the 1-389th took to the streets to locate their fellow
Soldiers who had not been in contact with the unit to report their status. It wasn’t an easy task.
Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Christian Matos, a drill sergeant with the 1-389th was on the contact team in those first few days.
“Everything was destroyed. It was a first experience for me, to actually live a hurricane and have no water, no lights, no communication, it’s hard,” he said.
Matos explained that with streets blocked by light poles and electrical lines, travel was difficult but not impossible and he immediately volunteered to part of the team.
Although Matos had no damage to his own house, the damages to homes of his Soldiers weighed heavily on him.
“For me, who had no damage to see a lot of my Soldiers that had damages… most of them lost their house so they were living in other places and it’s hard.”
Of the 60 Soldiers reached by the task force, almost 50 percent of them had sustained damage to their homes, with four of the homes sustaining damage rendering them uninhabitable.
Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Raphael Velez, 1-389th Regiment, transitioned to a liaison with the recovery operations, but to him the most important mission was as a member of the initial contact team.
“We got to go through the island, making sure they (our Soldiers) were OK and their Families were OK and I think that was the best mission that I did, making sure our own Soldiers were doing good,” Velez said.
Although he experienced Hurricane Hugo as a young child, Velez says that no other hurricane or storm that he has seen while living on the island could have prepared him for the damage caused by Irma and Maria.
“It’s 2017, it’s not like the old days… I never expected as much damage as we saw. The mountains would straight up collapse and take houses with them, landslides took houses, roads, huge trees,” Velez explained. “I never thought MY island would be like I had seen on the news from other countries.”
Velez saw the contact mission as a way to increase the readiness of his Soldiers for the recovery mission that was yet to come.
“Going out and finding my own Soldiers was the best mission. I needed to know, we needed to know they were doing OK, that their Families were doing OK,” he stated adamantly. “If we get strong, we can help others. If we aren’t strong we can’t help anyone.”
Once the accountability of the 1-389th was complete, the drill sergeants were assigned to alternate roles to assist in recovery missions.
“The resilience of our Soldiers, helping everybody was our biggest success,” declared Velez. “They didn’t care where they had to sleep, the didn’t care if they were hungry, they wanted to help. That’s what made it work, the Soldiers.”
Drill Sergeant (Sgt. 1st Class) Juan Velez was sent off mainland Puerto Rico to assist with recovery missions on the outlying islands.
“We were sent to Vieques and there they had major issues because that’s where actually the hurricane came in through first,” Velez explained. “Irma came through Vieques and Maria came through Vieques, they both hit the island and it was severely damaged. The hospital lost its roof and we were sent initially to help assist the hospital.”
An Army area maintenance support activity employee, Velez has experience with generators, which proved to be invaluable to recovery efforts. One of their first tasks was to repair the
main generator at the local fire station. Grateful, the firefighters allowed the Soldiers to bunk at the station during their mission.
“As people started hearing we were there, they started calling us for help,” Velez said. “The water company (the aqueduct) needed help with their generators so we got their generators up and going so they could actually feed Vieques and Culebra with water.”
Fed by an under ocean pipeline, providing water to Puerto Rico’s small outlying islands requires electrical power. Velez was able to help restore generator power and assist in providing water through that source.
“They had major issues with that (power) because the generators weren’t working so we started repairing, helping them get those generators up so that they can start pushing water through the island,” said Velez.
Soldiers are not strangers to disaster relief, but this experience took on a different meaning for the drill sergeants here at home.
“It was hard because of the hardship and suffering… It was hard for me because I mean, seeing these people, these kids, the elderly, babies, and their needs – it was rough,” Velez said.
Even in midst of the tragedy, the goodwill and generosity of the Puerto Rican people was apparent to the Soldiers.
“The people were generous, they would come up and say ‘hey, do you want some food’ or whatever. They’d see us and they’d be like ‘thank you, thank you, thank you – you don’t’ know how much we appreciate you being here and if it wasn’t for the Army, wasn’t for you guys we would still be at the bottom of the hole’.”
Although unable to do anything about the lack of commercial power, Velez sees ultimate success in restoring water to the area.
“Anybody can be without power, and you can use generators, but when it comes to water, for people to bathe, for food, for drinking, that’s rough if you don’t have any water. Just being able to be a part of that, to assist them in getting that water, that’s what touched me the most. Seeing the expression on their faces… that was exciting,” Velez concluded.
CLOSER TO HOME
One of the Soldiers severely impacted by the storm was Sgt. Alex Lozada, drill sergeant with the 389th Regiment and employee at the federal prison in Puerto Rico.
Lozada and his family left their home as Hurricane Maria bore down on the island and sheltered with Lozada’s father-in-law. They rode out the storm in an all concrete house protected by steel panels blocking the door, yet still felt Maria’s fury.
“The winds were so strong, from one in the morning until two-thirty we were holding the door because it was about to bust open,” Lozada explained. “We were taking turns… when the eye came we took an hour break and then the wind started to come back on but it was coming the other way.”
After the storm broke, Lozada headed out to see if his home had survived.
“I walked a pretty good five miles to the home to see how I ended up. We lost the roof, we also have in front of the home like a small little store where everyone in the area usually comes and buys and that also lost the roof.”
Prior to the storm, Lozada resided in the two story, multi-family dwelling sharing space between his small family and his mother and grandmother. Working at the federal prison, he relied on the small store for supplementary income.
Following the storm, Lozada and his family spent a week living with his father-in-law but it wasn’t an option as a permanent solution. Unable to return to their own home because of the damage, an alternate arrangement had to be made. Now, 79 days after the storm, Lozada still lives in a fourth floor cell at the federal prison with other displaced corrections officers while his family has been evacuated to the United States.
“You can’t live in the home right now because of the water that seeped from the top home that’s missing the roof,” Lozada explains. “It’s gathering three, four inches of water and when it starts raining it filters through to the first floor and it’s breaking up the cement.”
Of considerable concern to the Lozada is the mold growing in the humid climate. With the prices of generators, power washers and fans climbing to the unattainable range coupled with extremely limited availability, the resources aren’t there to properly clean and dry the homes in preparation for return.
“I’m waiting for everything to get back on track and then when I have the funds and I’ll fix it again” he said. He would like the luxury of a concrete roof and better protection when he rebuilds but the cost is prohibitive so he will roof with metal sheeting like before and hope for the best.
“We lost a couple of things,” demurred Lozada as he lists his television, furniture, beds, the kitchen counter, bathroom and stove amongst his unrecoverable possessions. “I try to always look at the bright side because I’m that type of person. It’s just material things. I stay positive everyday because I know everyone’s fine. My mom is doing good; my wife is doing good.”
Asked if he is doing good, Lozada drops his head and his shoulders begin to shake. When he can speak again he murmurs, “I just try to get through.”
Despite the devastating losses, pain of missing his family and the fact that he lives in a prison cell for now, Lozada is grateful for those around him that help.
“I know it’s going to be OK, that’s the important part. I have my family in the military, I have my family at home, and they’re always helping me.”
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
As I return to my hotel following a day of emotional stories and heart-wrenching interviews I realize I have much to be grateful for.
The lack of air conditioning and long climb up to my room do not seem as important this afternoon as they did this morning. At least I have a roof over my head and can turn on the lights. The gentleman outside the convenience store who asks me for a little change gets a small bottle of milk and a few non-perishable food items as well. It’s the very least I can do.
Puerto Rico is more than an island on a cruise ship stop. It’s more than a paradise for Spring Break students. Puerto Rico is a people, it’s a rich heritage, it’s a give until you have nothing left and then find something more to give mentality. Pride in the island is second to pride in themselves and Puerto Ricans have a lot to be proud of.
I am blessed beyond measure to be influenced by people who care less for themselves than they do for their neighbors. A population that has bonded immeasurably over tragedy and will work tirelessly to see their island recover. I gaze out of my windows at palm trees that still curve in the direction of a no longer existent storm and realize that much like the Puerto Rican people, much like the resilient Soldiers of the 1-389th Regiment, they are bent but not broken.