Like many members of the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, who have been deploying to help residents of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Neriah Holly volunteered to help people he didn’t know. But less than a day before his departure in early November, an unexpected request from a fellow employee made his mission a lot more personal.
That fellow employee was Maria Brito, a secretary with Resource Management whose parents live in a remote part of Puerto Rico and have been relying on a generator for all of their electrical needs since September.
Her father, 79-year-old Alberto Marquez, has been making regular trips to the closest service station where he waits in line to get gas for his generator. Complicating matters is that Marquez needs to use that generator all night to run a respiratory ventilation machine for his sleep apnea. This additional requirement means he needed more gasoline for his generator, which meant more trips and more waiting in line.
With only two gas canisters, Marquez’s trips were frequent and time-consuming, said Brito.
“In the beginning, he had to take a turn, get a ticket, and he was Number 200 on the line to get gas,” said Brito. “It was backed up that far. I think the first time waiting for gas, he was out there for seven hours in line. It progressively got better, but it was still time he had to go every other day to get gas. The 5-gallon gas containers sold out really quickly on the whole island.”
Like thousands of other residents throughout the island, Brito’s parents were also in need of other basic supplies such as batteries and lanterns. Because she had no quick way of sending such supplies to her parents or traveling there herself, Brito reached out to Jeffrey Davis, Huntsville Center’s emergency management specialist and deployment coordinator.
“It just so happened that the next morning, Neriah was leaving at 5:30. It was so funny,” said Brito. “I contacted Jeffrey at about noon, and he said, ‘Yes. I’ll find you someone.’ Within two hours, we connected and made plans.”
Holly, who works as an architect in the Engineering Directorate, was ready to deploy to Puerto Rico for a month as a quality assurance inspector in support of Operation Blue Roof.
It would be Holly’s job to assess homes to see if they were eligible for temporary roofing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Each roof consists of blue, plastic sheeting secured with strips of wood. Holly also examined each project to see if contractors needed to perform additional repairs, add structural components, make changes to how the roofs were secured to the home, or if construction crews required extra work platforms.
Overall, more than 850 USACE personnel are actively engaged in the effort to restore power, provide temporary roofing, perform debris removal and lend technical assistance in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. The ongoing effort is the Corps’ top priority.
Huntsville Center itself has deployed more than 80 people as part of hurricane response efforts in 2017, according to Davis, and more opportunities to deploy are open for 2018.
“It’s great what they’re doing over there,” Brito said of her deployed USACE comrades. “It’s really awesome.”
The afternoon before Holly’s departure, Brito went to the store and picked up two gas canisters, along with some batteries and lanterns. The next morning, she linked up with Holly to give him a duffel bag full of supplies. Within four days of Holly’s arrival to Puerto Rico, he connected with Marquez and gave him what he needed.
“He’s an awesome man,” said Holly. “He’s a veteran, and he had a lot of stories. He was very thankful for the missions we’re doing down there. He gave a thank-you from Puerto Rico for what we’re all doing. He’s a great individual. We talked out there for maybe an hour, just getting to know each other.”
Holly said Marquez told him he would also share these supplies with neighbors.
“They’re all kind of hurting for some of those essential things we take for granted,” said Holly.
“I feel much better, of course – relieved,” said Brito. “I’m so grateful. So, so grateful.”
Marquez wasn’t the only one Holly connected with, though. During his monthlong deployment, Holly teamed up with local contractors and government workers who helped him navigate the island and communicate with residents.
“I would say the thing that impacted me the most was the people – just how grateful they are, and thankful and joyful, even though they may not all have a house and they’re living with family members, or have no electricity still in many areas, and food and water. Those essential things,” said Holly. “It’s definitely an eye-opener and more encouraging than anything to see someone living in those conditions and … they’re encouraging to you. They want to give you food and water.”
Holly’s wife also works for Huntsville Center and has deployed several times, including to Afghanistan. Holly finished his Department of the Army internship nearly a year ago, and he’s now hoping he’ll get more chances to deploy.
“A lot of those deployment opportunities weren’t open to me before, so we’re hoping now that we can actually do these things together,” he said.
Holly is already making plans to return to Puerto Rico. If he does, he said he wants to bring more supplies to Marquez. If not, though, Brito said her father is plenty grateful for Holly’s visit in November.
“He said that made up for Christmas – all Christmases from here on out and birthdays and everything,” said Brito. “It was the best present ever.”
Interested in deploying to support of hurricane response efforts? Call Jeffrey Davis at 256-895-1329. Please note that supervisor concurrence is required before volunteering.