Written by Ens. Andrew Hallock
The summer and fall of 2017 saw a nearly unprecedented string of hurricanes impacting the southeastern United States. As always, of course, Coast Guard units responded to every storm, providing rescue, recovery, and security assistance in areas that had been ravaged by extreme weather. For Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) Miami in particular, it was a uniquely trying time in which personnel truly distinguished themselves through their perseverance and dedication: five weeks, three storm responses, an evacuation of their own homes, and a unit that came together through a difficult period to accomplish diverse missions and take care of their fellow Coast Guard members.
Although primarily tasked with security missions such as protecting the president or safeguarding major marine events in the country’s ports, MSSTs are rapidly deployable forces that can also be tapped for other missions in emergencies. When Hurricane Harvey hit, the call went out, and MSST Miami and New Orleans made their way to Houston. Over the ensuing days, the units moved throughout southern Texas, using punt boats to perform urban search and rescue, retrieving individuals from badly flooded areas and taking them to safety. With widespread electricity outages and severe infrastructure damage stretching across the region, the units found themselves living off meals ready to eat, MREs, and sleeping on cots at an abandoned mall in between their shifts navigating the flooded streets of Houston and Port Arthur.
It was a trying experience in difficult circumstances, but one that was ultimately rewarding.
“I will never forget the reality of people’s entire homes being destroyed,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Ricky Zuniga. “Wading through flooded neighborhoods, searching for anyone trapped and bringing them to safety was the best feeling given the circumstances – once you find one person you don’t want to stop searching and helping all you can to rescue someone else.”
As intense as that experience was, things were about to strike a lot closer to home for the members of MSST Miami. After two weeks of rescue operations in Texas, they were pulled back home to south Florida as Hurricane Irma bore down on their own residences. With only a few days to prepare the unit, personal property and make arrangements for their families, MSST Miami’s personnel leaned on each other to ensure everyone would be as safe as possible. Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn McLaughlin was deployed in the Caribbean at that time, with his pregnant wife at home alone. A MSST Miami work crew headed to his property and made sure all hurricane preparations were made.
“Having a new house and pregnant wife both going through a hurricane for the first time alone is scary,” McLaughlin later reflected. “It was a huge relief to have people from the unit step up and help her prepare, pack, and travel. Once I knew she was safe and the house was set, most of my stress went away. Without the support of my Coastie family, I am not sure what we would have done. It was a great display of community. ”
Days later, the official evacuation order was given, and MSST Miami’s personnel, along with the rest of the Coast Guard personnel and families in the Miami and Keys areas, left their homes and headed north to wait out Irma. As it turned out, the damage in the Florida Keys was far worse than that in Miami. Ass the MSST members returned to their homes after the storm passed, they knew what would be next.
“I did not know what to expect once I arrived home,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Roger Amaya. “I wasn’t sure if I had power or if the streets were flooded. Seeing the devastation Harvey caused just a week earlier, I knew the Keys would need help and deploying there would be a priority.”
Indeed, Amaya’s instincts were correct, as MSST Miami received the call to head for Key West. With their boats stored in a hurricane-rated hangar on Homestead Air Force Base, the unit was well-equipped to move out rapidly; MSST members ensured their families and properties were secure, then reported in and trailered their response boats toward the devastated chain of islands to their south. In Key West, MSST Miami, along with MSST New Orleans, immediately sprang to action, establishing a critical security presence and contributing to the extensive interagency effort to ensure the port was safely re-opened.
Back at home, those personnel not deployed turned to recovery efforts, assessing and dealing with damage at the unit and in their community. Knowing that other members of team Coast Guard were also badly affected, MSST Miami reached out to see where they could help. One of these places was the home of Chief Petty Officer Lorenzo Ladaga, who was home in Islamorada on leave from his assignment in Saudi Arabia. There, MSST Miami members helped out with debris removal and making the property safe again.
“There are not enough words that can describe how thankful we are for the support of the crew,” said Lagada. “Their work allowed us to spend some much needed personal time together, and not working in the yard trying to piece things back together. It’s moments like this that demonstrate the strength of service and the compassion of our members to support others when in need.”
Of course, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season didn’t end with Irma. Even as they were still deployed in Key West, MSST Miami members became aware that the massive Hurricane Maria was headed straight for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The local small boat units on those islands rely heavily on the 33-foot Special Purpose Craft – Law Enforcement (SPC-LE) for their operations, and there is only one MSST in the Coast Guard currently designated for certification on the SPC-LE: MSST Miami. This meant that the unit could deploy to that area without the exorbitant expense and time delay of airlifting different boats along with them. It was no surprise, then, when the call came in for the third time in a row. MSST Miami members filtered back from Key West, made preparations, and flew out for the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix, which had been decimated by Maria.
The personnel quickly took custody of SPC-LE platforms and began standing watches, reconstituting the Coast Guard patrol presence and response capability in the islands. Lt. Michael Packer, the operations officer of MSST Miami, led the team during the operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“After the hurricane, the infrastructure of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico was completely devastated,” said Packer. “We knew that our efforts were essential to assisting with the region getting back on their feet. Communications were often difficult, but we adapted and did what we could to support.”
MSST Miami’s crews returned home in mid-October, having deployed, back-to-back-to-back, to three devastated parts of the country in the aftermath of three of the worst hurricanes in recent history. Back at their unit in homestead, there are still some floors torn up from water damage and a few other cosmetic issues being worked out, but their work goes on. By November, MSST Miami was back to its standard missions, providing waterside security for the president. Everyone at the unit, though, will always remember the hurricane season of 2017 as a uniquely intense and important period of their career.
“As always, countless Coast Guard units distinguished themselves after these storms hit,” said Cmdr. Kevin Duffy, MSST Miami’s commanding officer, “And as always, we were humbled to support those units and be a part of the collective efforts of search and rescue and storm recovery. Regarding MSST Miami, it’s such a privilege to work with this group. What they were able to do was amazing; not just because of the consecutive responses, the rapid deployability and diverse operations they accomplished, but just for who they are as people. The way they looked out for each other when Irma hit their own homes, the way they reached out to help other local Coast Guard people in the aftermath, the way they were eager and ready to take on everything asked of them—they really embody the best of what our service is. A lot of people will look back on this hurricane season and remember the extent of the damage and the great work that so many responders did. I think for MSST Miami, we’ll look back on it as one of the proudest chapters in our history.”