WASHINGTON — After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a specially trained search and rescue team from the D.C. area was called on by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help.
Maryland Task Force 1, which is made up of firefighters from Montgomery County and surrounding jurisdictions, mobilized, loaded up and made their way to the struggling island on Sept. 20. The team caught a flight to Puerto Rico from the Dover Airforce Base in Delaware.
“We definitely traveled down there with the mindset that we could be going to a place that cannot support us with modern amenities,” said Michael Johns, master firefighter with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. He also serves as assistant rescue manager on Maryland Task Force 1.
Johns said when they arrived, they soon realized their main mission would not be search and rescue. Instead, the team was assigned the task of checking on communities in central Puerto Rico and assessing the needs of people in the towns they visited.
Much of the news coverage they watched leading up to their deployment showed scenes from the bigger cities on the island, according to Johns. That coverage, he said, didn’t prepare them for the devastation in the smaller, more isolated towns, which was much worse.
For the team, he said, the damage to buildings, infrastructure and the environment was overwhelming. “Not a single piece of bark left on trees,” Johns said.
Some members of the team said the devastation was similar to that seen when the team was activated to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, Johns recounted. What made the situation in Puerto Rico worse, he said, is the difficulty of getting needed supplies to the island.
With much of the island’s communications infrastructure destroyed, the team’s job was to go into the small communities, check on residents and relay what information they could about the damage and the needs of people living there, he described.
“They were so grateful just to see us, to know that someone was coming out to check on them and see if there is something we can do,” Johns said.
The team did what they could for storm survivors, but what they could offer was limited. “We felt so bad because we couldn’t give them more,” he added.
The team’s mission lasted a week. They eventually returned to Maryland on Thursday.
The recovery effort in the island territory will take a long time and, according to Johns, it could take months or longer for many of the towns they visited to get back up and running. His hope is the attention the recovery is receiving won’t die down.
“We’d hate for it to quickly be forgotten in the news and in people’s thoughts and minds,” Johns said.
One thing that stuck with him and his team was how even in dire circumstances, the residents were very welcoming to them.
“I commend the people of Puerto Rico and the citizens of that island; we saw a lot of resilience in them,” Johns said.
Answering the call for help is part of a firefighter’s mentality, he added, and is the reason most of them get into the this line of work. “We are more than willing to want to be on the front line and be the first people there to help them and provide that assistance.”