SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Master Sgt. Shaun Withers was nervously waiting in his office at the 165th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard’s strip in Savannah, Georgia, on Sunday morning. Outside a C-130 loaded up with supplies for Puerto Rico also waited in the dark.
“We’re ramping up, today is day one,” Withers said, adding the flight had been postponed several times.
Just then the phone rang, and Withers jumped up.
“It’s a go! Wheels up at 0100 hours!”
It was the fifth and last flight for that day.
“Our first flights brought back 103 members of Puerto Rico’s National Guard, evacuated before Maria hit,” Withers said. “They had not heard from their families since.”
Hurricane Maria made landfall last Wednesday, killing at least 10 people so far. What began as catastrophic urgency to rescue survivors—5,500 of them, according to Puerto Rico’s governor—has now turned into a long-term emergency on every level. After Maria and Irma passed, the destruction resembled the aftermath of an atomic bomb. No electricity for the island’s 3.5 million residents. No communication. Just silence.
Capt. Patrick Wheble landed the C-130 at San Juan airport at 7 a.m. Sunday. It was then that the scope of the task came into full view against the ghostlike backdrop of destroyed high rises with blown-out windows, and lifeless tree trunks.
“Today is the start-up and there is no end date,” Shivers said.
Already, more than 1,000 National Guard have arrived. They are part of the 10,000 federal staff deployed to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of relief efforts, according to FEMA.
Within minutes, the airport took on the look of a major motion picture production. Two enormous transport planes were already there unloading supplies.
“That’s the C-5 from Travis, the C-17 from McChord, Washington, the C-130 from Savannah,” beamed Senior Master Sgt. Gerard Lamola, pointing at the mammoth birds. “These are the three main cargo planes of the U.S. Air Force, and we’re up and running.”
In another corner on the tarmac, a small group of men walked off another plane with a small load of equipment.
“We’re from Fort Drum,” said James Davis, a civilian communications specialist. “They gave me 24 hours’ notice to get here.”
Here is a flooded Puerto Rican National Guard base.
“Last night we slept in the operations room,” said Capt. Jeff Rutkowski, sitting in a small break room with five other members of his unit, the 115th Fighter Wing Air National Guard from Madison, Wisconsin.
They’ve been brought in to fix areas left without communication.
“There’s no communication, that’s the problem,” Rutkowski said, adding “we’re innovators, we bridge the networks.”
Without working cellphones or the internet, no one could coordinate. The newly arrived teams frantically borrowed each others’ vehicles to go find out what was going on, where they should go, who they should report to, what was being planned, who was doing what, establish a simple meeting.
No internet meant, too, there was no way of knowing what were urgent priorities in San Juan and throughout the country.
“I’ve never experienced work without being able to communicate,” said an exasperated Michelle Alvarez-Rea, a public affairs officer in charge of multiple media requests.
A two-hour ride to the middle of Puerto Rico to catch up with a National Guard team sent to begin clearing the debris from roads, summed the chaos. Villagers said they were told the team was expected the next day. Alvarez-Rea, herself a Guard from Ohio, said good-humoredly, “When you’re the first troops on the ground, that’s what you have to expect.”
Along the road, we witnessed a strange phenomenon: Dozens of drivers parked their cars at certain spots on the side of the road.
“That’s because they’ve picked up a signal on their cellphones,” explained Alvarez-Rea.