A Bird’s Eye View from Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, a beautiful must-visit destination island, has been in the news quite a bit over the past few months.  From the news of filing for bankruptcy to the terrible images and reports of Hurricane Maria damage, the island has been on everyone’s minds.

As a municipal underwriter in finance, I know that the country’s finances have been the talk on the street.  As a National Guard Blackhawk pilot, having been activated for relief efforts, the damage was my daily life for over 30 days.

According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2016 the Puerto Rican population in the New York City Metropolitan Area is estimated just shy of 1.5 million people, which represents the largest cultural and demographic center for the heritage outside of San Juan.

Recorded as the fifth-strongest storm to hit the U.S., Maria herself was a 50 mile wide tornado of a hurricane, directly hitting the island at a Category 4, and sustained regular winds up to 150mph for close to 15 hours. Hitting the island less than two weeks after Category 5 Hurricane Irma clipped the island, Maria destroyed whatever infrastructure had barely weathered the first storm.  After Irma, at least 60,000 people of the 3.4 million person population were still without power before Maria struck.  After she left, 95% of the population did not have electricity. It’s also estimated that 91% of the island was left without cellphone coverage.

New York responded to Puerto Ricos request for help by sending numerous National Guardsmen to aid in relief efforts with various different skills.  Within 10 days, my group of 60 aviators were on the ground, unpacking our equipment and getting to work setting up a distribution center at the airfield.  This distribution center was for Department of Defense (DoD) aircraft to be able to deliver mainly food and water to the island’s towns that still did not have any.

Together with FEMA, we worked to get doctors and medics to remote towns and hospitals; provide food and water to towns still cut off by washed out roads; engineers and assessors to survey damage to roads, damns and high-tension power lines; and most importantly, to speak to the people about what they still needed (such as tarps for make-shift roofing, medication to regulate blood pressure and diabetes) and to relay messages to loved ones that they were alive and surviving.

From the time we arrived, to the day we left, it was amazing to see the island start to come alive. Slowly, more and more lights were being turned on, restaurants and shops were opening, and the main highways had been cleared. As each day went by, it became more apparent that things were and continue to improve.

Though the island is mainly powered through generators and clean water is still hard to come by, the people of Puerto Rico haven’t lost hope or sight of who they are. Improvements are being made every day and one day, life will be be back to and likely better than it was before.

The road to recovery may be long, but it is not impossible. The determination to overcome the worst hurricane in over 80 years, and the love for the island will help Puerto Ricans rebuild stronger than ever. Along with every other New Yorker, Puerto Rico has a special place in my heart and mind. We are #PuertoRicoStrong.