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Changed for Good: Serving Puerto Rico

(courtesy photo)

(courtesy photo)

(courtesy photo)

(courtesy photo)

(courtesy photo)

(courtesy photo)

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --

2017 was a record year for disasters in the United States. Countless emergency and major disaster presidential declarations--25.8 million people were affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, or Maria. Responders worked around the clock, meeting the challenges of an unprecedented season, stretching themselves beyond their limits, digging into the depths of their souls and wallets to give. For the first time, the Department of Homeland Security Surge Capacity Force (SCF) was extended to all federal agencies, asking for volunteers from across the government to join Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in response to the record-breaking hurricane and wildfire season.

 

I almost missed the email asking volunteers to support FEMA.

 

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?” And I said “Here I am. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8. While local agencies always lead the efforts, I was excited about the possibility of joining fellow Feds in supplementary response and recovery efforts.

 

Selfless service to our nation. To be the hands and feet of Jesus. To allow His love, kindness, peace, hope, joy, and glory to shine. When can I leave? 

 

Thankfully, my incredible F.E. Warren Air Force Base leadership gave the green light, not even knowing where I was heading.

 

Coming down the escalator in Atlanta-Hartsfield, I recognized a fellow Violence Prevention Integrator from Peterson. Michel was also deploying so she and I were inseparable and prayerful that we’d end up together, yet open to wherever God sent us. We linked arms with partners from 19 other federal agencies for a total of 260 people in Wave 14. For context, FEMA expected to mobilize three waves of surge support, and there were already over 5,000 SCF volunteers deployed in support of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and California wildfires.

 

Michel and I soon learned that we would serve in Logistics in Texas and Operations in Puerto Rico.

 

Upon arrival at San Juan’s Convention Center, the Joint Field Office (JFO), I learned that I’d be staying on the Italian Ferry with a few thousand of my closest friends and coming back and forth on a bus to the JFO each day for work. When I arrived in Puerto Rico, about 17,500 responders mobilized out of the JFO to support the unprecedented disaster response and recovery coordination and collaboration. I learned more than I ever dreamed possible from my new family.

 

I quickly began serving under the Infrastructure Branch Director. Before I knew it, I was invited by the Deputy Chief of Staff to serve as Wellness Coordinator and develop a Wellness Working Group based on the vision of our incredible Federal Coordinating Officer during Hurricane Sandy. Knowing we can maximize our effectiveness when we operate out of our strengths and serve more along the lines of what I do in the Air Force, I was beyond excited for this challenge to care for the caregiver by fostering ready and resilient responders in Puerto Rico. Each one of these beautiful people left an indelible impression on my heart so it was my deepest honor to take care of them and an incredible chance to exhibit servant leadership.

 

My “boots on the ground” intel was helpful in communicating status updates, resource referrals, and stories of hope to 20 F.E. Warren families directly affected by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico State Guard (PRSG) Senior Airman Eric Rivera inspired me with the best resilience quote- “Today is the best day because you are alive!” Another local responder inspired with wisdom for our relaxation room “Be so happy that when others see you, they become happy.” Every day, we watched faces light up as people placed pushpins on maps to show their hometowns and talk about how their municipalities/lives were affected by Maria.

 

Our incredible Federal Coordinating Officer, Mike Byrne, honored veterans and the Marine Corps’ 242nd birthday with 20 service specific and patriotic cakes while we sang each of their songs. He and Lt Gen Buchanan (Joint Force Land Component Commander) inspired us through their words about compassion, sacrifice, courage, and service.

 

Chaplain Rivera and José #3 helped me improve my Spanish, even suggesting a “Latin Lover” might help. My Social Security buddy and I received the behind the scenes tour of the Castillo San Cristóbal from José #1, the most passionate National Park Service guide you’ll ever meet. Everywhere we went, people were celebrating the joy of life through music, dancing, and singing. We danced the night away with 30 tirelessly devoted members of the PRSG Band during one of our Friday night dinners – keep in mind they were responders as well as survivors. From bartenders to Uber drivers, the graciousness and appreciation for the support provided to Puerto Rico was tangible.

 

I was treated to the most incredible hospitality and instantly experienced unconditional love on Thanksgiving with Peter and his beautiful bride Brenda, who makes the world’s best Sangria. None of this intimate group had power or water at their homes, but a time of prayer, reflection, and gratitude began the meal as Peter ensured everyone had both local and traditional Thanksgiving options. Learning of several thousand dollars spent to bring food and water to their community, I experienced what it truly means to be a neighbor. Their precious daughter Mariana taught me how to Salsa as musicians from the Latin Grammys played incredible songs to us at the delicious Asao Smokehouse. Country manager for Welch’s, José #2, shared the beauty of what family and gratitude are all about as he described the hidden blessings and simple joys given by Hurricane Maria.

 

When I arrived in San Juan, there was a lot of attention on the negative - only 13 percent of the island had power. By the time I left, power was restored to 56.3 percent of the pre-storm average load. 7,367 cubic yards of debris was removed upon my arrival and 603,048 cubic yards of debris/2,935 miles of debris were cleared upon my departure. By the time I demobilized, there was $446,886,959.84 in public assistance approved; 1,076,572 individual assistance registrations totaling $295,302,202.62 was approved.

 

So many good things are happening on the incredible island, and I am extremely humbled to note that by the time I left Puerto Rico, I had the honor of serving in the longest sustained air mission of food and water in FEMA history.

 

While I wasn’t technically serving as a Violence Prevention Integrator during my 45-day deployment, I confirmed something I’ve long pondered, the notion that outward violence can easily be remedied by addressing what’s going on internally. When we are kind to one another, when we step outside our comfort zones to notice, value, appreciate, and love one another, even when we seem to have lost it all, we have more blessings than we could imagine. That always makes the world a better place. I learned so much from my Boricuan and FEMA families in Puerto Rico, where I left my heart. Each of these beautiful people came into my life for a reason, bringing something I must learn and another way for me to grow in love, gratitude and joy. After my deployment to Puerto Rico with FEMA, “Who can say if I've been changed for the better?  Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” from Wicked, the musical.