Written by Master Chief Petty Officer Zach Zubricki
Wafting through the air the fetid stench of a pale, dead iguana combined with the pungent smell of rotting palm fronds as a faint glimmer of sunshine peered through a blue-white haze of chainsaw smoke over Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The sprawling base at the entrance to San Juan Harbor was showing signs of life as personnel sawed tree limbs and cleared debris after Hurricane Maria roared over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) on Sept. 20, 2017.
As ubiquitous as chipmunks in New Hampshire, iguanas are so common here that most Coast Guards members don’t pay any attention to them because Sector San Juan’s operating pace is so high, according to enforcement chief Lt. Cmdr. Mike Vega.
“I like iguanas. they add a different kind of experience when you work here,” Vega said from the St. Thomas, USVI Branch of the Sector San Juan Incident Command Post stood up to respond to Maria’s wrath. “It’s unfortunate when wildlife of any kind passes on.”
Just days earlier, the iguana was full of life sporting bright-green skin as it darted back and forth, cleverly avoiding women and men coming from the Exchange, galley and the chief’s mess that is five yards from the shores of the emerald and turquoise Caribbean Sea.
The lizard appeared to have made its last stand during Hurricane Maria in a gravel parking lot near a sandy beach where it once called home.
For many of the dedicated people who work at Sector San Juan, home is about 10 miles inland at a Coast Guard housing facility in Bayamon, a leafy hamlet nestled within the hills of San Juan’s suburbs. It was here where they made their stand, hunkered down and shielded from Maria’s tormenting winds and rain from construction made from reinforced concrete.
The Coast Guard members had better luck than the lizard.
“I am glad we moved [from Sector San Juan to Bayamon] because the sector suffered extensive damage,” Vega said. “A lot of us were frustrated by the forecast, but the National Weather Service told us that we could expect up to a 9-foot storm surge with 12 to 18 inches of rain and severe winds. At that point, [sector commander] Capt. Eric King decided it was unsafe to stay at the base. I think we had been hoping that the storm would turn north but at that point it was clear that Maria was slowing down and intensifying and we were in the direct path.”
The decision to move Sector San Juan wasn’t about just hunkering down, Vega explained.
Sector operations still had to be carried out, including managing the response to Hurricane Irma, which caused damage throughout the sector’s area of responsibility on September 6. The incident management staff set up a temporary incident command post within Bayamon’s community center and operated there until it was safe and practicable to return to Sector San Juan. The community center also acted as sleeping quarters for many personnel, including a cadre of maritime enforcement specialists who played a major role in providing security for emergency responders.
The decision to move from San Juan to Bayamon was the smart, safe thing to do, according to Chief Petty Officer Michael J. Bazzrea, a reservist from Sector Houston-Galveston, Texas. He also explained how difficult it was.
“In Bayamon right after the hurricane, there was a lack of power, running water, food, clean drinking water, and fuel,” Bazzrea said. “We knew it was going to be a long-term outage because of the destruction of the power grid here. In spite of the Coast Guard’s best efforts in preparation, a direct hit from a hurricane of this size is going to impact basic services. Bayamon housing was in far better shape than many of surrounding communities. But we needed to relocate the dependents who lived there and their pets if they wanted to leave to give a break and to lessen the demand of scarce resources needed for front line emergency responders.”
While stationed at Bayamon, Bazzrea supervised a team of maritime enforcement specialists that provided security for the dependents and their pets who rode in Puerto Rican Army National Guard troop transport trucks which brought them to the airport from where they relocated to Florida.
“I think the dependents exhibited great fortitude and resolve,” Bazzrea said. “They made my team feel welcome. Many of them opened up their houses to us and they made us meals. My team was very happy that we could assist them in getting to better living conditions. The Coast Guard missions were being carried out in a professional manner while the evacuation of children and pets was taking place in the same spaces. The entire command cadre took the time each day to address all dependents and Coast Guard personnel to help ease their minds by keeping them appraised of everything that was going on each day.”
Before the dependents were relocated, incident managers were trying to assess how bad things were immediately after the storm, and they needed power, but the generator was down.
Enter Chief Petty Officer Philip R. Soto, a Bayamon resident and member of Sector San Juan’s maintenance augmentation team, who once it was safe enough to go outside showed up outside the community center with a group of about six to eight personnel, many of them machinery technicians.
Soto said a team ” just went down to the community center where the generator was. We looked at the engine, made sure there was no discrepancies and fired it right back up.”
“Overall I think it [was] a very dynamic situation,” Soto explained about Bayamon. “Our concern is that everybody [was] safe. I think everybody was trying to do their jobs with what we had. We were literally knocking on doors to communicate. There were quite a few people taking charge with clean-up efforts and many people were asking how they could help. The first day after the storm, the entire housing crew grabbed chainsaws and started cutting and clearing brush.”
Master Chief Petty Officer Charlie F. Salls, Sector San Juan command master chief, was heavily involved with making sure the dependents in Bayamon and dependents living elsewhere – including a new-born baby – were safely relocated.
“The relocation process was probably one of the most challenging and most critical things we have had a chance to do – especially during an emergency. You had a lot people coming to me, they were worried about their families, their friends, their pets. I think what made it most challenging is that we had four landlines, that’s it. So cell phone towers are out, we got no internet, no computers, no power except for generators, we got no AC, we had no water. Basically it was the dark ages,” Salls explained.
As Sector San Juan gained capability and functionality, Salls was able to relocate back to his regular office and reflected on how he felt about those days in Bayamon.
“This is an experience I am never going to forget. I think this evolution sort of defined our contribution to the sector. The ability to do something for others especially in a time of need – I think we all live for an opportunity like that. It was phenomenal.”
Salls said he was surprised to see a major hurricane like Maria ramp up so quickly in the middle of the ongoing Irma response.
According to the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center in Miami, Hurricane Maria was a Category 4 storm when it slammed into Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, USVI, which also falls within San Juan’s area of responsibility.
Bazzrea, who had already deployed to Puerto Rico and the USVI for Irma, explained his shock at the damage Maria wrought.
“Prior to the storm, St. John [USVI] was a lush, tropical paradise,” he said. “After Maria, the island looked like it had been ravaged by a forest fire because the vegetation was all stripped away.”
Bazzrea further explained how Coast Guard personnel and equipment deployed for the Irma response quickly had to relocate and move out of harm’s way of Maria.
This included San Juan’s fleet of six, 145-foot Fast Response Cutters (FRC) and the Cutter Yellowfin, an 87-foot patrol boat. These vessels, along with other larger white and black-hulled cutters, formed Surface Asset Group Alpha, which were dedicated to Hurricane response in addition to their regular law enforcement, search and rescue and aids to navigation missions.
Prior to Maria, King ordered the FRCs and Yellowfin to make way for Curaçao, which is an island country in the southern Caribbean Sea 40 miles north of the Venezuelan coast managed by the Netherlands.
“Curaçao was the place to send these boats because it was well south of Maria’s path and we knew they all could get there in time,” said King. “We paired Yellowfin with an FRC to enhance this group’s capability. We also liked Curaçao because we knew these boats had the potential to get back into our [area of responsibility] quickly once Maria was clear of us.”
Maria’s path was extensive, but headed north and west after hitting the San Juan area of responsibility hard, according to Senior Chief Petty Officer Donald Jeffrey, who is attached to the naval engineering shop at the sector. And during the time Coast Guard personnel were managing the contingency from Bayamon, Jeffrey was at the tip of the spear bringing the sector in San Juan Harbor back to life.
“When we first got here after the storm, we proceeded to go down to the piers and there were about 3- to 4-foot chop waves,” Jeffrey explained while sitting in the chief’s mess, which resembles a beach-style cabana club.
“There was extreme pier damage,” Jeffrey continued. “We proceeded around the base and we saw maybe 20 to 30 very large trees down. We went and inspected all the buildings. The communication center had roof damage, the captain’s building had roof damage. The FRC building had roof damage. All around the base we had debris everywhere.”
Jeffrey went on to explain he knew there was no time to wait around and feel sorry about everything.
“The chainsaw stuff started happening,” Jeffrey said. We used all the sector base services personnel for that and a bunch of naval engineering personnel – there were about 10 of us. We had to clear everything so people could park here and start making the base useable again. We worked all day. It was very hot. We drank lots of water, kept everybody hydrated. I had to make sure the proper people were operating chainsaws safely. We wanted the base back open so we could start functioning again.”
It was good to see progress but that was just scratching the surface. All we did was make it where you could drive. We still have multiple palm trees down, piles of brush all the way round. We still have trees that we have not completely cleared yet and we still have things we have to cut. We are past the chaos stage and now we are doing everything we can do to clean up the base better.”
The sector command center stood back up on Oct. 11, 2017, and Sector San Juan is getting closer to looking like what it was prior to the storm, according to King. One important milestone was getting search and rescue mission coordination duties back from the Coast Guard 7th District.
“For us the tremendous responsibility of regaining ownership of all the communications capability is that we can act as search and rescue mission coordinator again,” said King. “We can coordinate our assets, our aircraft, and our small boats as well as cutters to respond and interact. Also more importantly with our inter-agency partners . . we are able to coordinate and plan searches for missing mariners and boaters on the water.”
King, who lives in Bayamon, said he is very proud of the sector personnel, and all the reservists and Auxiliarists who helped out too.
“We would not be where we are today without help from the Coast Guard Reserve and Auxiliary,” King said.
King is assisted by Capt. Francisco Rego, the sector deputy commander, and both leaders have been coordinating and working together throughout the response.
Rego explained that a response this large needed all hands, and Rego and King both said they are thrilled with the progress being made.
If iguanas could talk maybe they would agree too. Two of them were scampering along the beach near the chief’s mess on Oct. 12, 2017, running up into some trees that also somehow managed to survive Hurricane Maria.