The amount of water. That is one of the images sticking in the mind of Puerto Rico National Guard Lt. Col. Josue Flores in the wake of September’s Hurricane Fiona.
“The winds were only Category 1, but we’re talking upwards of 30 inches of torrential rain that stayed over 24 hours, so we saw a lot of landslides,” he said. “There was power-generating equipment that got flooded, a lot of people trapped in the water. It’s very hard to control, because all you can do is wait for the water to recede.”
Heroes in trucks
Flores was on the ground for the initial activation of close to 800 National Guardsmen across nine Puerto Rico locations on the Thursday and Friday before Fiona landed on Sept. 18. They came in trucks and helicopters, ready to perform search and rescue missions. Additionally, troops mobilized to deliver life-sustaining food, water and diesel as the entire island went without electricity.
“The water was up to half their vehicles, but our guardsmen headed out during the storm in assistance to our citizens,” Flores said. “They are truly committed ― they don’t get tired, they get full with energy.”
One mission involved evacuating a care home for the elderly that’s perched on a small hill. Flores and his team needed to get each resident out before a mudslide destroyed the building. The evacuation involved not only the elderly men and women, but also their medicine, specialty beds and medical equipment. The soldiers gladly got dirty, Flores said, caring for each patient as they were transported to nearby shelters.
“They had to make sure that every one of the residents got out without really thinking about the safety concerns for themselves, that the building could collapse on top of them,” Flores said. “It just fills you with joy in a different way.”
Thus far, an estimated 16 Puerto Ricans have lost their lives in Fiona. Yet it could have been so much worse, said Maj. Gen. Jose Reyes, who serves as the Puerto Rico National Guard adjutant general. Following Hurricane Maria five years ago, his troops learned valuable lessons on hurricane preparation and response.
“I thank God that we changed our emergency response plans after Hurricane Maria,” Reyes said. “Our plans now dictate for activation 72 hours prior to impact on the island. Due to that fact with Fiona, we were able to save people.”
Reyes said his troops –– eventually expanded to almost 2,400 for Fiona –– conducted close to 40 search-and-rescue missions. They even relocated entire communities of 500 people to safer ground. With Maria still fresh in everyone’s mind, people waited until the last minute to leave everything they had worked so hard to rebuild, Reyes said.
“It’s one emergency after the other one,” he said. “It seems like it never stops in Puerto Rico.”
Even so, Puerto Rico National Guard soldiers carried on, clearing roads, distributing almost 8,000 boxes of island-friendly food that will last four to five days, delivering water purification equipment that can clean 3,000 gallons per hour and providing 54,000 gallons of crucial diesel to 68 island hospitals.
“I’m very proud of serving my country; I’m even more proud of serving alongside the men and women of the Puerto Rico National Guard,” Reyes said. “It’s a unique force with a true commitment, an unbreakable commitment, to support the people of Puerto Rico in times of need.”
Over in Florida
Puerto Rico’s guardsmen brethren in Florida have been in similar straits with the arrival of Hurricane Ian. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis activated 5,000 of his state’s National Guard on Sept. 25. More than 2,000 Guardsmen from neighboring states have also been called to duty because of Ian.
“We are currently supporting missions that include staffing and supporting the State
Logistics Response Center (SLRC) in Orlando. In addition, the Florida Guard has
mobilized and is on standby with five Route Clearance Teams and Aviation assets,” Maj. Gen. James O. Eifert stated in a press release. “Mobilized units are also postured to support humanitarian assistance and security missions, as the need arrives. The Florida National Guard is well-equipped, with assets including high-wheeled vehicles, helicopters, boats, generators and more.”
No matter the state, Flores said, guardsmen stand ready to assist.
“When people see our soldiers, they know we come bearing help to alleviate their suffering,” he said. “They know we are going to be with them tirelessly.”