OCTOBER 23, 2017, Puerto Rico – A trail of destruction was left in the wake of Hurricane Maria when it made landfall in Puerto Rico, Sept. 20.
For more than three weeks, U.S. troops converged in Puerto Rico to aid the island’s 3.6 million residents, said U.S. Army Col. Mark Aitken, Chief of Staff, Joint Force Land Component Command, currently based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
JFLCC, currently commanded by Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, conducts Defense Support of Civil Authority operations within Puerto Rico supporting FEMA to provide life saving and life supporting capabilities.
“We respond to any disaster, attack or man-made event that would happen inside the United States that would involve a large scale response,” said Aitken.
In times of disaster, Army North, the U.S. Army land component headquarters for U.S. Northern Command, assists in response efforts by providing resources to the affected area. Service members help by clearing roads, providing medical attention, distributing food and water, and installing generators in hard hit areas where power is needed for hospitals.
ARNORTH’s response to Hurricane Maria is very unique. According to Aitken, when incidents such as Hurricane Maria affect Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and its outlaying areas, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy are usually those directed to respond.
ARNORTH normally responds to events in the continental United States, said Aitken. Because the devastation caused by the hurricane was so severe, the Department of Defense determined that ARNORTH should establish land-centric operations on the island.
It is important to ensure the most appropriate command construct for long term, land based recovery operations in Puerto Rico.
When settled in an area devastated by a significant event, ARNORTH provides support to agencies such as FEMA and other civil authorities that require additional logistical support. Due to the logistical demands of supporting multiple agencies, having JFLCC on the ground provides for a more expedient and efficient command structure to respond at the right place at the right time to support the people who need it.
“The main thing we are here to do is support FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico in their recovery process,” said Sgt. Ben Colia, a soldier assigned to ARNORTH.
For island residents, especially those in remote areas, the damage left behind by the storm meant they were closed off to immediate aid due to obstructed roads by fallen trees and debris.
Puerto Ricans have not been idle either.
Neighbors and friends worked together to clear debris from the roads in order to receive aid, said Diana Monroig, a resident of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico.
Some Soldiers native to the island with ARNORTH responding to the devastating event had personal duties to accomplish for their families.
“In our headquarters there are Soldiers who are from here,” said Aitken. “They work full 14- to 16-hour days, then turn around and take supply relief to their families and then come back and work again.”
According to U.S. Army Capt. Reynaldo Suarez, the life support mayor cell officer here, there are 32 personnel on the ground who are native to Puerto Rico.
The destruction brought by Hurricane Maria is shocking, said Sgt. 1st Class Wilder, operations sergeant major for JFLCC. The logistical effort of bringing food, water and fuel to an island roughly 1,200 miles away from the closest point in the continental U.S. makes it a uniquely complex environment.
Despite the damage and inaccessibility to areas around the island, ARNORTH has made it a priority to get to those locations to assess them in order to send the resources needed to aid survivors.
With all of the hard work the Soldiers and civilians of ARNORTH go through each passing day to help the residents of Puerto Rico, many are humbled by the experience.
After the destruction left behind by Hurricane Maria, it is awesome to see leaves slowly growing on trees, said Suarez. It’s a good feeling knowing that Army North will be able to help restore the island for the people of Puerto Rico.
Story by Spc. Gabrielle Weaver
24th Press Camp Headquarters