When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, two NNSA Office of Secure Transportation (OST) staff members immediately started paying attention to what was happening to the island and its 3.4 million inhabitants. Carlos Montanez and Jose Rivera were both born and raised in the American commonwealth and both had family still living there.
When Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked for DOE and NNSA federal employees to join the Homeland Security Department’s hurricane disaster surge force, Carlos and Jose answered the call. The two recently returned from the island where they were Designated Survivor Assistance volunteers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Carlos, a supervisor in the OST’s Transportation Emergency Control Center (TECC) in Albuquerque, NM, grew up in Río Piedras, a part of the San Juan metropolitan area. He came to the U.S. mainland when he joined the Army. After the military, he applied to OST and was assigned to the Western Command in Albuquerque as an agent for eight years. He also worked in several other OST positions before going to work in the TECC.
“I would have been willing to go anywhere they chose to send me, but it was gratifying to be stationed in Puerto Rico,” Carlos said. “Initially, I didn’t know how bad things were. We used DOD satellites to view damaged areas, then we would go to those areas and identify the specific needs. I had never seen Puerto Rico in that state. We had numerous hurricanes when I was a kid. We were used to hurricanes; we called them a forced family reunion. We’d get together and ride them out. In this case, the hurricane was devastating. What I knew as green was now brown, almost a scorched earth condition. Rain forests are rich with life as far as the eye can see. All the green had disappeared. There were toothpicks left standing that were once trees. It was really hard to see that.”
But Carlos said he also saw good things.
“I was proud to see the support that the government was providing and I was proud that I could help,” he said. “I saw citizens helping other citizens. On weekends there would be caravans of vehicles organized by churches, universities and other organizations taking water, food, clothing, and even toys to help other people. Puerto Ricans were helping each other.”
Jose, an agent stationed at the Eastern Command in Oak Ridge, TN, grew up in Vieques, a small island 10 miles east of Puerto Rico. He finished high school in Orlando, FL, before joining the Marine Corps. After the military he worked for a sheriff’s department in southeast Georgia and has been an OST federal agent since 2005.
“Before I became a volunteer I tried to keep up with the situation, but photos and video didn’t do it justice,” Jose said. “The Puerto Rican people didn’t wait on anyone. They helped each other. They knew what they needed to do, like clearing debris from roads so emergency vehicles could get through. It was beautiful. They haven’t lost their sense of who they are nor their sense of hospitality. Whatever they had left was there for others. When I visited people at their homes it was like going to my gramma’s house.”
The two men worked 12-14 hour days, going house-to-house in their designated regions of the island to help people apply for benefits, including updating or getting the current status of their applications.
“If people needed special equipment like wheel chairs, canes or special beds we could get those things,” Jose said. “And if people needed psychological counseling to help overcome depression we also arranged for that.”
“It was a humbling experience,” Carlos said. “There were people who didn’t have anything left, but they wanted others to get benefits, not themselves. They didn’t want to accept aid. It was very emotional. I had to convince people that we wanted to help them and their families.”
Jose and Carlos also said they were able to give the FEMA mission their full attention because of support from OST management. Their immediate supervisors, John Vukosovich in Albuquerque and Brian Lewis in Oak Ridge, made sure they didn’t have to worry about being away from their jobs.