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Seabees and Marines in Puerto Rico help to clear roads

By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 8, 2017

PONCE, Puerto RICO (Tribune News Service) -- The metal shovel clanged against the asphalt road Saturday morning as Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Mark Robbins scooped up a pile of mud and rock and tossed it on the hillside above him.

Sweat had already soaked through the 19-year-old's tan T-shirt and mud streaked his arms. As Robbins continued to dig and toss the muddy mixture, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Ellison held traffic at bay.

When Ellison let vehicles pass, several drivers honked, flashed smiles or gave the Seabees the thumbs up.

"I think we're doing a good thing for people that need it," Ellison said.

About a half-hour earlier, Navy Seabees and Marines dropped two front loaders at the intersection of Highway 10, which leads into the mountains from the port city of Ponce, and Route 143, a winding road that serves as a main artery between the municipalities of Adjuntas and Villalba, about 18 miles apart, in the central mountain region.

They will spend the next couple days digging in and clearing mudslides, downed tree limbs, debris and anything else that stands in the way of trucks attempting to deliver food, water and other supplies to the thousands of people who live in places that have, since Hurricane Maria, relied on helicopters for their most basic of needs. Though many roads are now passable, some remain barely so and allow only one lane to get by at a time.

"They can't get to these places without helicopters," said Marine Col. Michael Cuccio as he traveled through the area Saturday to assess needs. "That's why we're doing it for them for now, until we get these routes cleared."

Cuccio is deputy commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 2, which is handling the military's maritime response efforts in the Caribbean.

More than two and a half weeks after Hurricane Maria, recovery is moving forward, but reaching some more slowly than others. Seabees from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek's Amphibious Construction Battalion 2 and Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 202 and members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., arrived in recent days to help assist the region with getting back on its feet.

Getting there is going to take time, patience and heavy lifting.

Several dozen Seabees and Marines have set up camp at the Port of Ponce, in a building whose corrugated metal roof was partially ripped off by Maria, and in a hangar at the municipal airport.

Clearing roads is just one of the projects here; several sailors from the Virginia Beach-based dock landing ship USS Oak Hill arrived by inflatable boat Saturday to help clear a popular public park of debris. Other sailors will help deliver fuel, water, work on generators and complete other tasks as needed, Pierre Potter, a chief petty officer with the amphibious construction battalion, said.

Groups of Seabees and Marines began working their way in from Adjuntas and Villalba and will meet somewhere in between, before clearing other roadways as needed.

Even before the storm, Route 143 was a challenging, narrow road of frequent switchbacks and low visibility; in some places, vehicles could barely squeeze by each other. Maria made it even more of an obstacle course. Power lines dangled dangerously over the road in many sections, tangled in trees. Hillsides stripped of vegetation have given way to mudslides and tossed trees in drivers' paths.

Riding up into the hills shows a landscape dotted with mostly cement homes that, until recently, may have been hidden. Many roofs have been ripped off, some walls collapsed.

Seabees working with heavy equipment on the western side of Route 143 closer to Adjuntas got a lot of work done before a heavy downpour washed away some of their earlier handiwork. As rain fell, piles of mud collected again on some roadsides.

Ellison groaned when he learned about the mud.

"At least we don't have to camp here," he said.

But the afternoon rain didn't stop these Seabees. That impasse came at about the 5 1/2 -mile mark, where a power line hanging low over the road made it too risky for them to drive their front loaders through. The job of clearing power lines as part of this mission was left to local authorities, sailors said.

Instead, about 10 Seabees unpacked their military field rations, known as MREs, at a combination bar, restaurant, gas station and pool hall on a hilltop that offered sweeping views of the valley below. A couple of older men drank canned beer as some sailors ambled off to shoot pool.

Jamie Harris, a chief petty officer for the construction battalion, flagged down some passing police officers in an attempt to get in touch with the local power company. Cellular communication in the region has not returned since the storm blew it away Sept. 20, along with power.

About 12 miles away, near the eastern end of the route, Angel Domingez, 84, carried a machete as he walked down a hill from where his daughter and son live to watch the action. His home was destroyed by Maria and he said he's now living with another son a few minutes' walk away.

Before the Navy and Marines arrived, community members helped clear roads so they were at least passable.

"It hasn't been so much route clearance as it's been route improvement," Marine Cpl. Callon Conger, 21, said on a stretch of the road that smelled of fresh cut lumber.

Marines and Seabees working there cut and chopped their way through about 1 1/2  miles of the road before calling it a day. As they prepared to leave, employees from the local power company drove up in a battered Jeep.

(c) 2017 The Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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