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Boots on the Ground in Puerto Rico – An update from Drexel Hamilton’s Meghan Polis

By: Chief Warrant Officer Meghan Polis, U.S. Army National Guard
Vice President, Municipal Finance, Drexel Hamilton

Meghan Polis shares her perspective of the state Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Polis is a UH-60 Blackhawk Pilot with the 3-142nd Assault Helicopter Battalion in the U.S. Army National Guard (NY). From September 27th-November 3rd, 2017, she deployed to Puerto Rico to aid in relief efforts.

Chief Warrant Officer, Meghan Polis, and Chief Warrant Officer 3, Leo Soto fly the UH-60 Blackhawk to deliver supplies for residents of Puerto Rico.

Electrical Power
Current estimates from the Army Corps of Engineers are that it will take anywhere from 6-9 months for most areas to restore electricity. The outer towns have gotten power back in the higher populated areas, but most other areas are still very isolated. The power they have restored is mostly intermittent and those with generators are doing well.

Delivering food and water to a community in Orrocobis.

I spent one morning flying a few representatives for the Army Corps of Engineers with a mission to chase the main power lines on the Eastern portion of the Island. Many parts are in better shape than they thought, others as damaged as expected. The western parts are in similar shape, as reported by my fellow unit mates. From my perspective, there are large spans of the main lines that are toppled over and will be very difficult to raise based on the lengths of line hanging between gorges and flattened on the ground. This will probably be one of the biggest obstacles to restoring power to the mountainous regions.

Read more on this in the Wall Street Journal article by Wall Street Journal Reporter, Arian Campo-Flores, who spent the day with Meghan and her crew.

Puerto Rico’s Power Restoration Slowed by Miles of Downed Lines

Delivering supplies while gathering information on other needs.

Road and Transit Capabilities
From an aviation perspective: more airliners have been made available for the mass exodus the country is experiencing. This still has not satisfied the need of many people waiting for hours outside of San Juan airport’s main terminal for a chance to snag a cancellation or other way off the island.

Ground Transportation
Main roads along the outer edges of the island have been cleared, and it is very easy for transit via these routes. Any other roads are often passable but cut off from the larger towns due to washed out areas, fallen trees or serious debris accumulation. Truck drivers went back to work after ships began arriving with much needed supplies.

In general, larger towns and cities (like San Juan) have gone back to work and have been able to find clean drinking water and other amenities. It’s the small towns tucked into the mountain sides and remote parts of the island that, two weeks after the storm, still had no roof over their heads, no clean drinking water and are in dire need of basic medical supplies.

FEMA and various other organizations are working to figure out how to get these supplies and medical personnel to these remote areas. Aviation assets are being utilized as the main delivery method until roads are repaired.

My aviation task force performed many missions with FEMA representatives, generals and the governors to allow them to survey the damage. This work helped provide first-hand experience and imagery so they could work on getting the funds necessary to help the country recover. We also took engineers and other specialists to do the same for their utility sectors.

Aside from that, we dropped food and water where we could. Often, this included very slow and low flights into remote areas to try to find somewhere to land and talk to the town members about their needs.

Because of the erosion, the river delta can be seen much farther into the ocean than normal. – Polis

During my first flight in the country, we landed on a small baseball field near the center of a small town. Watching the parking lot fill with cars before I put the brakes on was astounding. The speed and excitement with which the town gathered was also sobering. There were people of all shapes and sizes with giant smiles on their faces and children running with joy towards us. We sent one of my crew chiefs out to talk to them about their situation and returned telling us that the town had no electricity, no cell service, no clean drinking water and no insulin or blood pressure medications. Keep in mind, this was 12 days after Hurricane Maria originally hit the island. We left them with the remaining food and water we had in our aircraft and a promise to ensure more was on the way.

That one moment was everything I’ve wanted out of this career. To see those children happy, the mothers and grandmothers relieved that there was some help…That was the mission I joined the National Guard to do.

The opinions expressed in this summary are my own and not representative of Drexel Hamilton or the NY Army National Guard.

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