Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Steenson
Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. It ravaged the island for more than 30 hours, with winds lashing up to 175 mph and enough rain to cause catastrophic flooding. Two months after the storm has passed, the devastation lingers; families are displaced, homes have been torn-apart, and destroyed boats sit sunken in harbors or have washed ashore.
The Coast Guard, Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established a unified command to organize salvage and removal operations for displaced, sunken and wrecked vessels throughout the island.
Vessel identification teams located more than 330 vessels needing removal or salvage. Many of the vessels are lodged in environmentally sensitive areas, presenting a unique challenge for removal operations.
“Any response will have an impact on the environment, so we try to impress upon the responders to complete the mission with the least amount of impact,” said Jesse Stark, a scientific support coordinator from NOAA. “In most cases, you can’t do nothing, but if we can minimize potential damage by taking the time to figure out the best approach in the response operation, the better.”
Members attached to this response recently went through training on how to work in mangroves, a crucial feature in Puerto Rico’s marine ecosystem.
“The mangroves are so important to the environment in Puerto Rico,” said Stark. “They are home to a lot of indigenous species, they play a part in water quality and they provide storm surge buffering.”
The training and interagency coordination allows the operational teams to compile their skills with expert environmental and local area knowledge. Without this, the teams could potentially cause more harm to the area during a removal done in haste.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Pronovost, a marine science technician reservist with the Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, brings another set of trained eyes to a response. He is an industrial hygienist for the Department of Veterans Affairs when he is not deployed or drilling with the Coast Guard.
“It’s very important to be cognizant of ecologically sensitive areas while removing displaced vessels,” said Pronovost. “We’re fortunate enough to have natural resource advisors at the command post who are able to provide specific training with respect to the sensitivities on a local level.”
Whether it’s coral, mangroves, or an area with protected species, teams are able to address each concern on a specific basis. Pronovost said it’s important to keep those concerns in mind throughout the mission to leave as small of a footprint as possible.
The process takes more than locating vessels and pulling them out of water. It has taken the unified command weeks of diligent preparation and outreach to get to a point where operations can come to fruition. Teams have been travelling throughout the island placing large stickers on affected vessels in hopes that the owner will contact the unified command to start the removal process.
“We are transitioning into the third phase of the operation,” said Pronovost. “We’ve identified the vessels needing removal with the sticker campaign. Next, we will have the vessels removed from these impacted areas with barges and cranes and oversee the contractors to make sure best management practices are followed and all safety aspects are adhered to.”
One of the challenges to get to the removal phase has been getting in contact with vessel owners to let them know their vessel has been located and to give them the option of the Coast Guard removing it at no cost, taking care of it themselves, or working through their insurance company.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Greenfield, a machinery technician with the Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team, is part of the field team visiting marinas and connecting with communities to get in touch with vessel owners in preparation for salvage operations.
“Because of the hardship the people of Puerto Rico are going through right now, it’s our top priority to ensure they can get their property back and give them some peace of mind so they can get back to their lives that have been disrupted,” said Greenfield. “It’s nice to be able to put someone’s mind at ease and let them know we’re here to help them out free of charge and do it the right way to minimize potential damage to the environment where the boat may be displaced.”
Deployed members spend between 20 days and several months on the island for recovery efforts. Greenfield said in his time here, he has gotten to know people in communities they’ve been visiting, and it’s given him even more passion for what he does.
“I will personally never forget how resilient the people of Puerto Rico are, or how passionate they are about helping each other,” he said. “This hasn’t been a case of ‘we came in and saved the day,’ this is a case of ‘we came in and helped.’ I wouldn’t want that to get lost in the shuffle. These people are not helpless; they are incredibly resilient.”
Having spent most of their time travelling to Puerto Rican communities, Greenfield and Pronovost were both personally impacted by the interactions they had with the people of Puerto Rico. They discovered that, despite everything they have been through, the locals work together with high spirits, demonstrating their resiliency, strength and community.