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Alaska Guardsmen set to join hurricane relief effort in Puerto Rico

U.S. Army Pfc. Ka D. Thao, assigned to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), hands a water package to a hospital employee in Ponce, Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, 2017.

PABLO N. PIEDRA/U.S. ARMY

By TEGAN HANLON | Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 5, 2017

More than a week passed before Alaska Guardsman Sgt. Jorge Palermo heard from his parents in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

"It was terrifying," he said of waiting for word from his family after Hurricane Maria touched down. He was thousands of miles away in Anchorage, but it could have been another planet. He had no way to reach them.

"It was stressful," he said in an interview Tuesday. "I had to stop watching the media."

Now, Palermo is one of 10 Alaska Guardsmen — airmen and soldiers from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base — heading to Puerto Rico Friday to help with hurricane relief.

"I'm super excited that I'm able to help," he said.

Palermo lived on the island for 14 years, starting at age 6. His parents still live there, along with aunts, uncles and cousins, he said.

He said he spoke with his mother on Sunday for the first time since the hurricane tore across the island. She said they had food and water. Some of the homes nearby sustained major damage.

"I'm sure it's going to be a lot worse when I see it in person," he said.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that about 95 percent of Puerto Rico still did not have power, and more than half of its 3.4 million residents didn't have running water.

Palermo and the other Alaska Guardsmen will help with communication on the island.

Together, they will operate a mobile Joint Incident Site Communications Capability system. The truck-based system, with its own generator and satellite dish, will be flown from JBER to Puerto Rico, said Sgt. Javier Avellaneda, another member of the team.

The system will allow first responders and local agencies to send emails, make phone calls and communicate by radio with the Puerto Rico National Guard to coordinate efforts, Avellaneda said.

It can also serve as a general communication hub for Puerto Ricans who need to get a message to relatives to tell them they're OK, he said.

Alaska's device will join several others dispersed across the island to bolster communication.

At Fort Greely near Delta Junction, where the Alaska Army National Guard operates the nation's main missile defense system, about 20 Puerto Rican soldiers were still waiting to hear from their families Tuesday, said Lt. Col. Orlando Ortega, commander of the Guard's 49th Missile Defense Battalion tasked with securing the complex.

"The last couple weeks have been very stressful," he said.

Of the 210 soldiers in the battalion, about 60 have roots in Puerto Rico, he said.

The Puerto Rico National Guard has a military police unit that offers training and part-time work. Since Fort Greely has dozens of full-time military police jobs, it often draws trained Guardsmen from the island to Alaska, said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, director of public affairs for the Alaska National Guard.

Ortega said he has talked with the soldiers daily to hear about their families and offer support. One Alaska-based soldier had an uncle who drowned during the hurricane, he said. Many had family members who lost their homes. One soldier's daughter gave birth to a baby on the island Monday. A communication blackout on parts of the island still prevented some from knowing how their family fared, he said.

"You're so far away and you want to help, but you can't," he said.

While the Fort Greely soldiers won't travel to Puerto Rico as part of the response effort Friday, their Alaska-based families and the community did collect boxes of donated items to send to the island, Ortega said.

On Friday, Palermo will return to Puerto Rico for the first time in five years. The team is expecting to spend about 30 days on the island.

He said he felt excited and proud but worried to see the extent of the devastation.

"Not many Puerto Ricans who are in the United States get the chance to go over, so I'm pretty proud of what the National Guard is doing," he said.

Alaska Guardsmen have also assisted with the hurricane response in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida and Texas.

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©2017 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska)

Visit the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) at www.adn.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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