Reservists deliver aid to storm-ravaged areas of Puerto Rico
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 8, 2017
MOROVIS, Puerto Rico — There’s no electrical power coming into this town. Since Sept. 20, the people don’t have running water. One person — a teacher at the high school — heard the power won’t be restored here until May.
But that’s not what’s keeping the big high school in this town of 32,000 from recovering from Hurricane Maria.
The Department of Education won’t let the school reopen because of the downed power lines blocking the property, said Rita Jusino Del Pozo, principal of Jaime A. Collaza High School in Morovis municipality, 45 miles southwest of San Juan.
“The Department of Education came in to assess but that’s it,” she said.
Military officials assisting in the hurricane response say it’s just a matter of numbers – higher density populations are going to get services restored sooner. But Jusino’s daughter Victoria Calderon, a dance teacher at an elementary school in San Juan, was dubious.
“I don’t know why it’s taking the Department of Education so long,” she said. “My school is open with trees on the lawn. Maybe because it is a poor community or it is in the center of the island. People in the center feel very forgotten.”
Nearly 50 days after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, most major highways have been cleared. But except for the largest municipalities, many towns and villages are still without running water and electricity. In the interior of the island, where smaller more remote villages are still struggling to get basic necessities, residents feel left behind in the slow recovery. Some are leaving the island in search of work or sending their children to the states. Others say they will stay and rebuild.
In Morovis, teachers got right to work. They brought saws to clear fallen trees. Four classroom walls came down during the storm and teachers have rebuilt them. Some students come in day after day to help with the cleanup.
But no one has been able to clear the downed poles and heavy electric lines that are blocking the entrance to the school parking lot.
When military trucks carrying pallets of water and Meals Ready to Eat pulled in Tuesday, soldiers climbed on ladders and trucks to hold up the downed cables so the trucks could enter – something that has become more dangerous as power is slowly being restored around the island.
“A lot of teachers have reached out to the authorities but nobody is coming to help,” said English teacher Carla Roman, who, along with the other teachers, wore new white T-shirts that said “Yo amo mi isla,” or “I love my island.”
“This is the biggest high school in Morovis and nobody has come out to help. If they just move them out, we can start. We want to work.”
“We are just doing things ourselves,” Jusino said.
Helping their own
Twin brothers Bryant Yohel Ramos and Bryant Omar Ramos graduated Jaime A. Callazo high school five years ago. Both work as security guards – one at the airport, the other at the port. And both are specialists in the Army Reserves 390th Seaport Operations Command, based out of Ceiba on the island’s east coast.
They were at home when the hurricane struck – Yohel with his parents and Omar in his house with his wife and two children. But within days of the storm, they’d were called to serve in the vast response effort.
Since Sept. 23, they’ve been out on a mission every single day, Yohel said. They’ve traveled the island with their unit, delivering water, food and emergency supplies to communities in need.
Last week, Yohel said he drove the big truck across a very small bridge to bring supplies to San Lorenzo, one of three towns in Morovis municipality where the main bridges to each town were destroyed in the storm. One slip of a wheel and the truck would have plummeted into the water, he said. He wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“I am in my country,” Yohel said. “I am helping my people. Every single mission — I take it like it is my town.”
After the disaster the Army Reserve was able to operate on an “immediate response” authority – jumping in to help out before the formal request from the governor made it through to tasking from FEMA, said Maj. Ruth Castro, a spokeswoman with the 1st Mission Support Command in Puerto Rico.
But because of the enormity of the devastation, the assignment of these soldiers has been extended long after they would have handed off to other entities.
“You can see the heart of the Puerto Rican soldiers who lost everything and still put on a uniform and come to work,” Castro said. “They have a lot of love for their island and the people.”
For the Ramos brothers, when they had an opportunity Tuesday to help their hometown, it felt like something special. They initiated the mission after Omar received a letter and passed it on to his commanders. The principal was seeking assistance for people who lost everything.
Yohel beamed with pride after he backed the Army green truck loaded with supplies into the parking lot of his old school, while his brother and another soldier held up the power cable.
Friends and family hugged the soldiers, and one friend broke down in tears. She lost her job when the storm destroyed the business she worked for, Omar said. She was leaving Tuesday for the mainland, hoping to find work.
“I am doing my best to try and push more missions here,” Omar said. “It’s easier to get stuff to big communities.”
Everyone is affected
The distribution coincided with an open house at the school. Jusino couldn’t open classrooms, but more than 400 of the 740 students and their families gathered at the covered outdoor gym as Jusino and others made a presentation using a generator-powered microphone.
“A lot of people are traumatized,” Jusino said.
The trucks pulled up as the ceremony ended, surprising many, and quickly people formed a line that snaked across the parking lot of the school. Puerto Rican Army Reserve soldiers formed a line across the top of the flatbed, passing the cartons of MREs and packages of water bottles along until they were handed down to the next person on line.
This is a catastrophe where many of those responding to the disaster have themselves been impacted by it.
“I’ve been through a couple of hurricanes,” said Capt. Joaquin Matias, deputy operations officer for the 4th Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division out of Colorado Springs, who is originally from Puerto Rico. “It felt like an atom bomb hit.”
After Hurricane Maria, Matias took in the wife and children of a fellow Puerto Rican captain in his unit who had just transferred to Korea. The captain had already turned in his house in Colorado Springs and had planned to send his wife and children home to Puerto Rico. Then the storm struck. Matias hosted them in his home until his colleague’s family could find a new one. “It’s hard, but we will recover,” he said.
In Morovis, the municipality has set up potable water tanks in a Walgreens parking lot. Each day, Roman takes her five gallon jugs there so she can feed and bathe her family. She’s heard the community will get power back in May.
Calderon, who lives nearby, is more optimistic: Between March and May.
After the storm, Roman sent her 13-year-old daughter to live with her father in Philadelphia, where she could attend a charter school. It wasn’t an easy decision, she said. But her daughter is a very determined student who wants to be an orthodontist or a plastic surgeon. The school offers a science and pre-med focus and her daughter asked to go. She didn’t want to miss out on school.
Still, her younger sibling cries that she misses her older sister. It breaks Roman’s heart.
“My mom says this has only come to separate families,” Roman said, wiping away tears. “It makes me sad.”
Castro, a Texan who is based in Fort Buchanan in San Juan with the 1st Mission Support Command, said she agonized in the first weeks over whether to send her children to their grandparents on the mainland after the storm. Her husband, a contractor with Northrop Grumman, was overseas and she was working all hours. At their grandparents, the kids would have electricity, go to functioning schools and they could have better dinners than cold Chef Boyardee spaghetti out of a can.
“We were all stuck: Do we evacuate our kids to the states or keep them at home where there’s no school?” she said.
“I just kept them here,” she said. “They need to be little survivors anyway.”