ROOSEVELT ROADS NAVAL STATION, Puerto Rico—Twenty-eight U.S. Army reservists answered the call of duty, left their families behind, and reported to an abandoned base on the eastern tip of the island.
Then they waited for orders.
It was one week before the soldiers heard from the outside world. That is how desperate, how disorganized, the situation in Puerto Rico has been. Try as he may to deflect blame for the response to Hurricane Maria, President Donald Trump is the commander-in-chief of these soldiers who were marooned while their countrymen needed all the help they could get.
On September 21, the day after Hurricane Maria crashed into the island and knocked out virtually 100 percent of its electricity, the call to mobilize Puerto Rico’s reservists and National Guard went out over AM and FM radio. There was no other way to reach them.
“For those who weren’t tuned in, the order was relayed by word of mouth,” Sgt. Daniel Navedo of the Puerto National Guard said. “We were told to go to Fort Buchanan, the U.S. military base in San Juan, or to our closest unit.”
Without cellphones, internet, or reliable landlines, the island has been thrown back to the 1940s when the naval station was built. After the U.S. Navy shuttered the base in 2004, its last on the island, all that remains are a few decrepit buildings—the old customs house, the port police station, and a towering, rusted shipping platform—worn by years of neglect. The hurricane has done away with the rest, where weeds hadn’t.
There are lingering questions about how safe the area is after it was used as a chemical warfare and bomb-testing ground by the military, but the station has been selected to decongest San Juan’s airport and get relief to the hardest hit areas.
It was being hit itself with an unforgiving thunderstorm on Saturday. At the end of a long road leading to a hilltop was a hangar. Inside were the 28 reservists sitting at a long table, with their few belongings spread across tightly packed cots.
“We’ve been here for a week,” said one of the reservists, who had come from a nearby town. “There is no communication, nothing. We just came here.”
Some of them have still not reached their families in the States to let them know they are alright.
“We would have to send someone to San Juan to find out what is going, but there’s no gas, so we wait for someone to come to us. We’ve just been standing by,” the reservist said as nervous uncertainty spreads across each of his comrade’s brows.
Soon after, Sgt. Navedo appeared after he drove two hours from San Juan.
“I’ve got good and bad news. What do you want first?” he said, trying to lighten up the spirits of his young soldiers.
The soldiers, now his, huddled around him. Navedo pulled out a list of names written by hand in a school notebook to call roll. There were 41 altogether, and 28 had arrived.
“Today is the end of fiscal year 2017,” Navedo said. “I need to make sure I get my soldiers paid. Tomorrow, October 1st, is the start of fiscal year 2018.”
Navedo would be leaving almost as soon as he got there.
“I’m just the runner. I go to Ft. Buchanan and make sure the financing is up to date. Then I come here and take care of my soldiers,” he said.
Navedo said his small team of diehard reservists, the 390th transportation battalion, will unload supplies from FEMA, the Air Force, and Marines, and ferry them to the hardest hit areas. But that won’t happen until each of them get to the station and set up their own logistical bases.
“We’re standing by for missions,” Navedo said.
Down the hill there is a semblance of activity. Behind a chicken-wire fence is a small camp with a few tents, a Humvee, and a wet American flag at the end of the runway. Blackhawk helicopters swerve into landing formation as the skies threatens more downpours.
“We’re the U.S. Army Medevac contingent,” said a soldier who walked up to a padlocked fence between the road and the airstrip. “I actually don’t have a key to it,” he laughed.
“There’s just two of us here,” he said.
Their call sign is “Dustoff,” the same one used for medevac missions in Vietnam.
It will take precious time to dust off Roosevelt Roads. Too much time for Auroria Rosario. Working in the dark at her pizza shop in the nearby town of Ceiba, Rosario said she had enough cooking gas left for eight more days. “After that, it will be disastrous,” she said.
Just then there was a thunderclap. Rosario looked up at the sky and said, “One more storm and we’ll be dead.”