When Andrew “Andy” Borra boarded his flight from New York to Puerto Rico in September 2017, nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to see.
As the plane approached San Juan, the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was overwhelming for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York supervisory special agent.
“We could see the entire city of San Juan and roofs were blown off almost every building,” Borra recalled. “It wasn’t until we got into the mountainous areas and small villages that we saw washed out roads, bridges down and isolated communities. People who depend on a small access bridge were now isolated from any type of aid, so that was eye-opening.”
Borra is the tactical supervisor for the HSI New York Special Response Team (SRT) that was deployed on Sept. 29, 2017, to San Juan in the aftermath of one of the catastrophic hurricanes to ever make landfall. For the next four weeks, SRTs from New York, Tampa and New Orleans, joined multiple rapid response teams in supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) mission for ground and air delivery of food and aid.
SRT members joined law enforcement partners for a daily briefing that identified what was needed for the day, whether search and rescue, gathering ground intelligence or food and aid delivery. However, as helicopters flew aid to remote towns and villages, they were only able to drop the food to citizens, leaving the people to fend for themselves.
The SRTs received intel reports that elderly and small children were not getting aid and jumped in to assist with security details on various operations that were going on. Borra and the other SRT members inserted themselves into supporting the mission by securing landing zones for the helicopters and making sure the distribution of food was orderly and fair and equitable.
“It was the first time there was order for dispersing food and water,” Borra said. “The folks who lived there were so grateful. We were bringing much-needed supplies in addition to food, like diapers and formula for the kids. Whatever met the needs of the community.”
During the relief efforts, a picture was captured of Borra talking to a child as boxes of food and bottles of water were being handed out in the remote area of Morovis, Puerto Rico. A year after the devastation, that photo was on display as one of the center pieces in an exhibit that is part of a Hurricane Memorial in Plaza Las Americas in San Juan. The memorial took place during the week of Sept. 20, 2018, marking the one-year anniversary of the storm.
For Borra, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and legacy U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) member, he calls it ‘a great honor’ to see that photo chosen. The work could not have been done without the SRTs training to conduct high threat operations and protection details and their ability to organize and quickly move to a situation.
“I remember that day vividly. It was a young kid that was just excited to see people land from helicopters and get off,” Borra said of the picture. “The people of Puerto Rico were great to us. They barely had any food to survive and here they were giving us their last bit of rice and beans that they were willing to make for us.”