By Marcy Mason
After Hurricane Maria, the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico’s history, pummeled the U.S. territory last September, it left a path of crippling destruction in its wake.
The magnitude of damage to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was so devastating that it wiped out the entire electrical grid, plunging the Caribbean island into darkness. The catastrophic aftermath of the storm—flooding, mudslides, collapsed bridges, downed trees, communication towers that had been knocked out—and the struggles endured by the people who live in Puerto Rico are, by now, widely known.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection had never faced a natural disaster quite so challenging. But using its resources and ingenuity, the agency created an unprecedented supply chain that helped Puerto Rico during the initial weeks of its recovery.
By the time Hurricane Maria unleashed its fury on Puerto Rico, striking the island on Sept. 20, with 155-mile per hour winds, CBP had already, only weeks before, responded to two other catastrophic storms that season. But Maria was much more challenging because the Category 4 hurricane hit an island more than a thousand miles away from the U.S. mainland.
“It’s not like when a hurricane hits the continental United States, where once the storm passes, you can drive relief supplies, personnel, and other resources into the impacted area. On an island, everything has to be shipped in,” said Vernon Foret, CBP’s Caribbean area commander who oversaw the agency’s emergency response efforts in the region.
But it was much more than that. There were a myriad of other logistical challenges created by the storm.
“Normally in preparation for a major storm such as a hurricane, we pre-position aircraft and people so we can get into place to conduct rescue and recovery operations,” said Eric Rembold, the executive director of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations for the Southeast region.
“But Puerto Rico is an island a thousand miles away and we couldn’t do that. We were busy taking our aircraft and people off the island for protection. Typically, we would be there within hours, as soon as the storm passes and the winds die down, but, in this case, we really couldn’t do that until about 30 hours after the storm,” Rembold said.
The storm had barely cleared the northwest coast of the island and CBP’s aircraft were already flying in. At first, CBP’s Air and Marine Operations surveyed critical infrastructure such as dams, bridges, major roads and hospitals.
“We start by making assessments to see just how bad the storm is, to understand the magnitude of the devastation, and then determine what resources are needed,” Rembold said. “We stream live video to different command centers throughout the country—our own and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s.”
After that, CBP’s focus became a recovery operation.
“We were trying to find out the wellbeing of our employees,” Rembold said. But communication became extremely difficult because the cell towers and landlines were down, and there was no electricity across the island, so trying to reach the employees for 100 percent accountability became extremely challenging.”
Making the situation worse, the roads were impassable. Fallen trees, debris, downed power lines, large pot holes, mudslides and collapsed bridges were all obstacles that vehicles needed to maneuver.
“Driving on the roads to find our people was not an option at first,” Rembold said. “It was too hazardous.”
Instead, CBP used Black Hawk helicopters to search for employees on the island.
“Every day we would gather a list from our lead field coordinator in Miami and send it down to our agents in Puerto Rico. ‘This is the list. We need you to check these 10 people today,’” Rembold said.
The agents began searching the island to account for the nearly 700 CBP employees who worked in Puerto Rico. The teams would fly from CBP’s Caribbean Air and Marine Branch in Aguadilla, on the west side of the island.
“We’d fly to a town, land, and start walking around, looking for CBP employees. We’d literally walk up to people and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for these three people. Do you know them?’ Invariably they knew one or two of them and where they lived,” said Jeffrey Birks, a CBP supervisory air interdiction agent and critical care flight paramedic.
While they were there, the agents tried to help the local townspeople.
“These people were completely isolated, so we had to do something to help them stay in contact with the outside world,” Birks said, adding that he copied down names and telephone numbers to call relatives in the U.S. on a satellite phone when he returned to CBP’s air branch.
“I probably made 40-50 calls. ‘I saw your nephew, niece, aunt, uncle, grandparents. They’re alive and well and their house is standing. They don’t have any telephone service, so they can’t call you, but they wanted you to know that they are okay.’”
Food and water were also scarce as well as other supplies.
“It was very hard for us. You couldn’t find water or food anywhere. Everything was closed,” said Ramiro Cerrillo, CBP’s incident commander responsible for relief and recovery efforts on the west side of the island.
The San Juan airport was also shut down. Five days after the storm, it reopened—but just barely. The airport had been badly damaged during the hurricane and was running on generators. In fact, almost everything on the island was running on generators.
This article originally appeared in Frontline Magazine, a news publication run by CBP. Read the full original report at CBP’s website.