Sailors Assess Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria Damage

Story Number: NNS171107-04Release Date: 11/7/2017 8:51:00 AM
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By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dana D. Legg
USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) Public Affairs

BAYAMON, Puerto Rico (NNS) -- After spending nearly two months out to sea conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, Sailors assigned to amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) had the opportunity to see, first-hand, the difference their efforts have made, during an assessment visit ashore, Oct. 27.

On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms in a century within the Atlantic, drove through the U.S. Virgin Islands as a Category 5 hurricane, damaging homes and businesses and displacing thousands of residences. Just weeks later on Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane measuring 50-60 miles wide and one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S., made direct landfall onto Puerto Rico, leaving nearly the entire island without power and causing catastrophic damage to the island's infrastructure.

For Operations Specialist Seaman Zabrina Adorno, the hurricane destruction was personal. Having aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents still residing in Puerto Rico, she was more than ready to go ashore.

"I'm excited and a little nervous," said Adorno, who hadn't seen her aunt and uncle in almost three years. "I've visited them before, but I know it's going to be a lot different this time given the circumstances."

As part of the family and neighborhood assessment, almost two dozen Sailors from Kearsarge were transported ashore to reconnect with family members living in Puerto Rico, to document and survey the extent of relief efforts in their neighborhoods, and ascertain local infrastructure information.

Upon arriving ashore, Adorno was greeted by her cousin, Jose Hernandez-Luna, who works as a local police officer. Hernandez-Luna was passionate about the aid Puerto Rico has received, discussing the highs and lows he has seen while on patrol.

"You can only prepare so much," Hernandez-Luna said. "And there was no way Puerto Rico could prepare for a storm this bad. There was no way anyone could prepare for 16 hours of waiting in line at the gas station. No way to prepare for us to still have no power besides a generator."

Five weeks after the hurricane, Adorno's family is still utilizing a small generator to get power for their necessities, turning it on in the morning for two hours to charge electronics, and again in the evening for a few hours to run the freezer.

"It's frustrating that we can't keep our food cold," said Tony Hernandez, Adorno's uncle. "I turn on the generator a few hours each night to keep food from defrosting completely, but we buy new food each day because we can't preserve it all."

However, Hernandez was grateful for the municipal government and their efforts in Bayamon.

"The local government has been great," Hernandez said. "They were extremely quick when it came to providing us aid. They were in the streets the next day after the storm, clearing the debris so that emergency vehicles could get through."

Adorno admitted it was tough to see her family struggle, but she was glad to see that they were doing well under the circumstances.

"It's definitely a relief knowing they have food and water," he said. "They were fortunate to prepare well by getting gas and boarding up their windows before the storm."

Just two houses down from Adorno's uncle's home, her 12-year-old cousin, Jonathan Hernandez was in school. There, she toured throughout the small building, observing ripped off roofing, bare rooms and torn walls. As she walked into the classroom, strewn about students' desks were small, brown plastic bags from meals, ready-to-eat (MREs), a sign of federal aid.

The schoolmaster and owner, Felix Trinidad, said he brings food of his own to feed the students each day, including MREs he received from the distribution point set-up run by FEMA and the military in San Juan.

"I just always made sure to bring what I could for them," said Trinidad. "Not everyone here has a way to get to San Juan for food and water, but it's my school and I think of the students here as my children too. I must feed them. For some students, this is the most fulfilling meal they eat each day because there is no power to cook or refrigerate food."

Trinidad's school was nearly destroyed during hurricane Maria. The building used to be two stories before record-high winds tore off the roof. Classes have been back in session for approximately a week, running on a modified schedule, to allow children in all school grades to attend class each day. Even with the mixed classes, debris and slight disorganization, Trinidad was still proud to show off his school and students. He maintains hope that the local government will help him put his school back together.

"This school and the kids are my entire life," Trinidad said. "I have insurance of course, but it can't cover everything. I'm praying something comes along that can help me make my school what it was before."

A sense of community was strong in the small neighborhood. While driving down the narrow side streets, Hernandez-Luna pointed out a sign that he translated from Spanish, which read "Puerto Rico stands."

"It doesn't sound the same in English," Hernandez-Luna explained. "But in Spanish it means something special. After a disaster this bad, Puerto Ricans must stand together. We have to help each other; support one another."

That message has resonated with Puerto Ricans all over the island as both citizens and government officials direct traffic, clear debris and distribute relief aid supplies.

"We want to start our lives again," said Gladys Hernandez-Luna, Adorno's aunt. "But Puerto Rico needs power. That is the most important thing. Without power, we can't begin again."

Aside from the nature of the visit, Adorno's family was ecstatic to see her. They expressed nothing but pride for her service, and felt even more honored she was part of the effort aiding Puerto Rico.

"It was very emotional for us to see [Adorno] during this time," said Adorno's aunt. "We are going through hard times recovering from the storm, but knowing that she is here and is part of the reason the people of Puerto Rico are receiving so much assistance, makes us feel very proud to call her our niece."

As of Oct. 31, in both the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, more than 4,500 Sailors from the Kearsarge, USS Wasp (LHD 1), USS Oak Hill (LSD 51), and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), and Marines from the 26th and 24th Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) conducted 244 medical evacuations, delivered more than 4.6 million pounds of relief supplies, cleared approximately 100 miles of routes on the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, flew approximately 1,600 flight hours in support of Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) operations, and rendered medical aid to 523 patients aboard Comfort.

Day by day, parts of the island are coming back to life. The ultimate goal of restoring and repairing the power grid will take time, but with the help and support of hundreds of federal employees, Department of Defense personnel, and volunteers, that time is growing shorter.

Kearsarge is assisting with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The Department of Defense is supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal agency, in helping those affected by Hurricane Maria to minimize suffering, and is one component of the overall whole-of-government response effort.

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Hurricane Maria
171028-N-WH681-099 SABANA GRANDE, Puerto Rico (Oct. 28, 2017) Intelligence Specialist 3rd Class Jason Santiago, assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), hugs his aunt, Rosin Ramirez, during a family assessment. Kearsarge Sailors with family ties in Puerto Rico had the opportunity to go ashore and meet family members and assess the current relief support being provided and ascertain infrastructure information. Kearsarge is assisting with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The Department of Defense is supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal agency, in helping those affected by Hurricane Maria to minimize suffering and is one component of the overall whole-of-government response effort. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kaitlyn E. Eads/Released)
October 31, 2017
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