Wafting through the air the fetid stench of a pale, dead iguana combined with the pungent smell of rotting palm fronds as a faint glimmer of sunshine peered through a blue-white haze of chainsaw smoke over Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The sprawling base at the entrance to San Juan Harbor was showing signs of life as personnel sawed tree limbs and cleared debris after Hurricane Maria roared over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on Sept. 20, 2017.
As ubiquitous as chipmunks in New Hampshire, iguanas are so common here that most Coast Guards members don’t pay any attention to them because Sector San Juan’s operating pace is so high, according to enforcement chief Lt. Cmdr. Mike Vega.
“I like iguanas. they add a different kind of experience when you work here,” Vega said from the St. Thomas, USVI Branch of the Sector San Juan Incident Command Post stood up to respond to Maria’s wrath. “It’s unfortunate when wildlife of any kind passes on.”
Just days earlier, the iguana was full of life sporting bright-green skin as it darted back and forth, cleverly avoiding women and men coming from the Exchange, galley and the chief’s mess that is five yards from the shores of the emerald and turquoise Caribbean Sea.
The lizard appeared to have made its last stand during Hurricane Maria in a gravel parking lot near a sandy beach where it once called home.
For many of the dedicated people who work at Sector San Juan, home is about 10 miles inland at a Coast Guard housing facility in Bayamon, a leafy hamlet nestled within the hills of San Juan’s suburbs. It was here where they made their stand, hunkered down and shielded from Maria’s tormenting winds and rain from construction made from reinforced concrete.
The Coast Guard members had better luck than the lizard.
“I am glad we moved [from Sector San Juan to Bayamon] because the sector suffered extensive damage,” Vega said. “A lot of us were frustrated by the forecast, but the National Weather Service told us that we could expect up to a 9-foot storm surge with 12 to 18 inches of rain and severe winds. At that point, [sector commander] Capt. Eric King decided it was unsafe to stay at the base. I think we had been hoping that the storm would turn north but at that point it was clear that Maria was slowing down and intensifying and we were in the direct path.”
The decision to move Sector San Juan wasn’t about just hunkering down, Vega explained.
Sector operations still had to be carried out, including managing the response to Hurricane Irma, which caused damage throughout the sector’s area of responsibility on September 6. The incident management staff set up a temporary incident command post within Bayamon’s community center and operated there until it was safe and practicable to return to Sector San Juan. The community center also acted as sleeping quarters for many personnel, including a cadre of maritime enforcement specialists who played a major role in providing security for emergency responders.
The decision to move from San Juan to Bayamon was the smart, safe thing to do, according to Chief Petty Officer Michael J. Bazzrea, a reservist from Sector Houston-Galveston, Texas. He also explained how difficult it was.
“In Bayamon right after the hurricane, there was a lack of power, running water, food, clean drinking water, and fuel,” Bazzrea said. “We knew it was going to be a long-term outage because of the destruction of the power grid here. In spite of the Coast Guard’s best efforts in preparation, a direct hit from a hurricane of this size is going to impact basic services. Bayamon housing was in far better shape than many of surrounding communities. But we needed to relocate the dependents who lived there and their pets if they wanted to leave to give a break and to lessen the demand of scarce resources needed for front line emergency responders.”
While stationed at Bayamon, Bazzrea supervised a team of maritime enforcement specialists that provided security for the dependents and their pets who rode in Puerto Rican Army National Guard troop transport trucks which brought them to the airport from where they relocated to Florida.
“I think the dependents exhibited great fortitude and resolve,” Bazzrea said. “They made my team feel welcome. Many of them opened up their houses to us and they made us meals. My team was very happy that we could assist them in getting to better living conditions. The Coast Guard missions were being carried out in a professional manner while the evacuation of children and pets was taking place in the same spaces. The entire command cadre took the time each day to address all dependents and Coast Guard personnel to help ease their minds by keeping them appraised of everything that was going on each day.”
Before the dependents were relocated, incident managers were trying to assess how bad things were immediately after the storm, and they needed power, but the generator was down.