An Island in Need

Southwest Residents Assist With Relief Efforts in Puerto Rico

by Lauren Salinero


Walking up the gangplank from a commercial aircraft to an airport terminal is typically an exciting time. People are scurrying to get to their bags and meet loved ones. A new crowd awaits at the terminal, ready to depart as soon as the next flight is ready. Messages are constantly announced over the intercom. The noise and atmosphere is typically that of anticipation, determination and sometimes impatience. Not this time.

After Hurricane Maria, Civil Air Patrol 1st Lt. Brian Collins of Dr. Phillips deploys to Puerto Rico for 10 days to assist with relief efforts.

Dr. Phillips resident and Civil Air Patrol 1st Lt. Brian Collins departed the aircraft in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in mid-October to almost total darkness. Passengers brought out flashlights and cameras to light their way through the power-deprived airport, eyes carefully trained to the floor to avoid pools of water still stagnant in some areas. A musty smell pervaded the terminal, the air hot and thick without the relief of air conditioning. It was at that point the seriousness of the situation dawned on Collins and his team.

A member of Civil Air Patrol Emergency Services, Collins is qualified as a mission scanner, mission observer and aerial photographer. He was deployed to Puerto Rico for 10 days after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, along with 15 other volunteer members. Several other CAP members in the states also supported the mission as part of a virtual team.

“In Puerto Rico, our mission was to document and photograph the entire island from the air, so my work was focused on that,” Collins said. “I spent most of my deployment in a Cessna behind the pilot shooting photos of any requested areas or targets that our crew was assigned.

“We were the fifth group from CAP to be deployed to Puerto Rico — Team 5, which was comprised mostly of members from the Florida Wing. Virtually all of us were senior members, but we did bring one cadet with us who is highly trained in communications.

“We were also supplemented on the island by members of Puerto Rico’s Wing. I need to give special props to them. Over the 10 days we were there, they worked hand-in-hand with us and were phenomenal. Virtually all of them, whether senior members or cadets, were still dealing with very challenging situations at home — no electricity, fresh water [or] plumbing; food shortages, etc. But they showed up every day, working hard and not complaining. It was really inspirational to see them doing that.

“Obviously, we all heard of the devastation down there prior to being deployed, but until you actually see it for yourself, it’s tough to fathom the scope. As an aerial photographer, I had the chance to see pretty much the entire island from the air, and it was pretty sobering flying over village after village and just looking down into people’s houses because the roofs had been blown off, if their house even survived the hurricane.”

Collins described his time in Puerto Rico as “along the lines of a true, albeit short-term, military deployment.” He and his team were housed on a merchant marine ship. They rose early in the morning to catch a van to their mission base, which was set up in a large public health clinic. They had only sporadic electricity, which was supplied by a generator, and most of the plumbing was nonfunctional. Then came the challenging flights around the island to photograph their specified targets.

“Because the terrain in Puerto Rico is very mountainous, there were a lot of updrafts and down drafts that created for some bumpy flying,” he said. “I don’t think anyone actually got sick, but we pretty much all felt queasy by the end of the day.

“Another challenge was the fact that there were so many other military and relief aircraft and helicopters flying about the island. It was pretty cool seeing lots of Blackhawks and Osprey aircraft, among other things, but you always had to be very diligent and aware when you were flying.

“Time will have to tell whether the relief effort is a ‘success’ — because it is far from over and is going to be going on for a long, long time. You hear a lot on the news about the good and the bad that is occurring, but in my opinion, I think the territory and those responding are doing the best that they can. This is a disaster of unprecedented scale in many ways.

“Being on the island definitely gave me a different perspective of what was going on with the relief effort and the challenges of executing such a massive undertaking. I met people from FEMA, the U.S. Public Health Service, NASA, botanists, the New York Department of Sanitation, Boston and New York police officers, and even the IRS. Even with all of these people responding, the challenges are immense: having a structure for all of these agencies and individuals to work within, building communication channels, establishing relationships with the people and agencies in Puerto Rico, and so forth. Making things even more complicated is the fact that the island has its own culture and political framework, requiring both sides to adapt to this new reality.

“Perhaps the most difficult part, though, was the fact that so many Puerto Ricans were still trying to cope with the destruction and effects of the hurricane. Many live in very remote areas that are incredibly challenging to get to because of the rugged terrain, not to mention the washed-out bridges, roadways and levies.

“The entire trip was filled with incredible moments for all of us. Many of my fellow team members have similar stories about being approached by locals who were extremely grateful that we were there to help them; that happened to me more than once. That always made me feel good, because one thing I tried very hard to do was to show respect to the people who were down there and dealing with so much suffering.

“I’m very proud of the response that our community alone has contributed — I know a lot of people spent lots of time at the convention center, for example, helping to assemble almost 4.5 million boxed meals. As grueling and challenging as my deployment was, I was honored to be able to go down there and do my part, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

As an aerial photographer, Civil Air Patrol 1st Lt. Brian Collins photographs the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico.

Windermere resident Janira Rivera, a nurse with Fresenius Medical Care North America, also felt compelled to travel to Puerto Rico. Originally from Puerto Rico, Rivera’s family still lives on the island. Volunteering to help with relief efforts, she was also able to visit her mother, whom she had difficultly connecting with after the hurricane. She felt lucky to be with a company like FMCNA, which was heavily engaged with the disaster relief efforts.

Rivera recalled going to Puerto Rico with team Fresenius “an amazing experience.” She also commented that there was still much work to be done, as most of the island was still without power and water, and grocery stores were limited.

Civil Air Patrol, the longtime all-volunteer Air Force auxiliary, operates a fleet of 560 aircraft, performs about 90 percent of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions, and is credited with saving an average of 80 lives annually. CAP also plays a leading role in aerospace/STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — education, and its members serve as mentors to 24,000 young people participating in CAP’s cadet programs.

The Olympia Cadet Squadron meets weekly at Olympia High School and is open to anyone in the community. Senior members have opportunities to not only work with cadets, but if qualified as a pilot, can earn flight hours and receive training in emergency services. Students learn leadership and can participate in a variety of exciting activities.

For more information, contact 1st Lt. Collins at bcollins@flwg.us or visit www.gocivilairpatrol.com. ♥

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