NEW ORLEANS – More than 300 Louisiana National Guard Soldiers and Airmen returned from a month-long deployment to Puerto Rico at the end of October.
LANG engineer, military police and air traffic controller units were sent to assist with the island’s recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which hit the island in September. Puerto Rico received sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, making Maria the fifth strongest hurricane to ever hit the United States.
Once the storm passed, lack of food, fresh water and electricity became a grave concern. The storm knocked out 1,360 out of 1,600 cell phone towers and damaged 80 percent of the island’s power transmission lines which are expected to be out for months. Further complicating issues, many roads were damaged making it difficult to travel or transport critical supplies.
“Make no mistake — this is a humanitarian disaster involving 3.4 million US citizens,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.
The Emergency Management Assistance Compact offers assistance during governor-declared states of emergency, allowing states to send personnel, equipment, and commodities to assist with the response and recovery efforts in other states or territories.
“We have a strongly developed sense of pay-it-forward,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth T. Baillie, deputy director of the Joint Directorate of Military Support for Louisiana.
Baillie spoke on the decision to send Louisiana National Guard troops to Puerto Rico saying, “Not only are we well trained to respond to an all-hazards request, but Louisiana has a considerable amount of hurricane recovery experience.”
Once on the island, 167 Soldiers with the 922nd Horizontal Engineer Company, headquartered in Gonzales, cleared more than 200 fallen trees and freed roads of debris. The engineers also moved 900 tons of gravel to build dams and built 40 concrete poles to help Puerto Rican electrical companies begin rebuilding their power grid.
In, Augadilla, Puerto Rico, Soldiers restored running water by removing debris from water channels. The engineers spread across the island and distributed more than 90,000 bottles of FEMA water and 70,000 meals.
“It makes me feel good just knowing that we were able to be helpful,” said Army Capt. Tykesia Prier, a Marksville native and commander of the 922nd. “That just goes to show me that we did what we came here to do.”
For Pfc. Jacob Sing, a Gonzales resident and a horizontal engineer with the 922nd, this was his first time working disaster relief.
“I’ve enjoyed doing the humanitarian mission,” said Sing. “When I hand out food and water, I see the look on their faces and they say, ‘Thank you.’ It makes me feel good to be able to help out.”
The 239th Military Police Company, headquartered in Carville, arrived with 163 Soldiers and worked across the island to provide support to Puerto Rican law enforcement.
“We were there to keep surface roads available, enforce the curfew so we could allow people to move through the roads freely with supplies to help facilitate and expedite the distribution of food and water,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Price, a supply sergeant with the 239th.
The MPs conducted force protection duties at Camp Santiago and augmented local police with patrols. Some of the MPs drove in excess of 3,000 miles on patrol. For comparison, the entire length of the coast of Puerto Rico is only about 300 miles.
“It’s a really humbling feeling knowing that somebody can come up to you and give you a hug, kiss you on the cheek and say, ‘Thank you, God bless you,’” said Price. “We’re just doing our job that we signed up to do.”
The 259th Air Traffic Control Squadron, based out of Alexandria, sent 22 Airmen to man the non-towered airport at José Aponte de la Torre in Ceiba, Puerto Rico. The Airmen ran 24-hour operations and eventually 12-hour operations, to ensure safe arrivals and departures of aircraft.
“We came in because there was a great increase in traffic,” said Senior Master Sgt. Tracy McDonald, an air traffic control superintendent with the 259th. “We had all types of military planes, general aviation, local commuter and pretty much every kind of helicopter you can think of flying in.”
The airport acted as a hub for sending out food and water to the people in the area. At times, the Airmen delivered food and water to Puerto Ricans via helicopter.
“It’s just been a great opportunity to come here and actually do our job as air traffic control,” said McDonald. “All of our guys are just grateful to be here and be able to help out.”