Personal Histories from the Coast Guard's Hurricane Maria Response

Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley makes way off the coast of Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, following Hurricane Irma. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

By U.S. Coast Guard News 04-19-2019 10:50:19

[By J. Edwin Nieves, M.D., Coast Guard Auxiliary]

In 2018, the Coast Guard Historian’s Office began documenting the eyewitness accounts of Coast Guard members following the disastrous 2017 hurricane season. During the season, the Coast Guard responded to three massive tropical events affecting central Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Separated by thousands of miles, each one of these areas has unique geographic and climate operating conditions. Of these, Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, was the worst, and one in which Coast Guard members and their families were both victims and responders.

Under the guidance of the Atlantic Area historian, three oral history recording missions were completed within the 7th Coast Guard District 7 (D7) area of responsibility. Over 70 oral history interviews were recorded, including the D7 commanding officer, pilots, rescue swimmers, Coast Guard members of all ranks and rates, Auxiliarists, civilian employees and Coast Guard spouses.

In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the Coast Guard was ready in responding to both hurricanes Irma and Maria. During the early days of September, the Fast Response Cutters based at Sector San Juan were pre-staged at the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curacao to avoid the hurricanes. After the storms, these cutters and their crews were the first ones onsite in St. Thomas and St. Croix.

Fast Response Cutter Donald Horsley’s commanding officer, Lt. Katherine Ustler, described a scene of “utter devastation.” She recounted that “everything was brown” and the characteristic lush green of the hills was gone. She witnessed submerged and semi-submerged boats floating along Charlotte Amalie’s waterfront. Her crew went ashore and immediately began distributing supplies and evacuating those in need of medical care. After the hurricane had passed, the crew of Fast Response Cutter Heriberto Hernandez set out for the islands of Vieques and Culebra and towns along the south coast of Puerto Rico. Petty Officer 1st Class Jovan Morales and his shipmates delivered supplies, assessed the damage to commercial ports and began the process of re-opening the ports in the area. The cutter’s enlisted personnel, like Petty Officer 2nd Class Andrew Fedynich, frequently came ashore to assist local communities by troubleshooting generators, waters pumps and helping in every way they could.

Sector commander Capt. Eric King moved his Incident Command Center to the Rio Bayamon Housing Center prior to Hurricane Maria’s arrival. He did this in anticipation of infrastructure damage to the sector’s operations center. It was the best choice as the operations center sustained heavy structural damage. Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Phipps arrived in Puerto Rico to assume command of the operations center two months before Maria’s landfall. He hit the ground running, forwarding communications and personnel to facilities at Miami and Martinsburg, West Virginia.

“We shifted our communications posture to Martinsburg, West Virginia, in order to prevent communications loss,” recalled Phipps.

These actions ensured the best response posture after the hurricane to maintain mission-oriented communications ensuring an orderly and coordinated flow of resources in the days that followed.

Within hours of the hurricane fury abating, Senior Chief Petty Officer Donald Jeffrey began surveying the damage at Sector San Juan.

Coast Guard members clear a tree felled by Hurricane Maria in front of Quarters One behind the massive “portable” communications command center at Sector San Juan. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“There were [fallen] trees everywhere,” said Jeffrey. “Part of the operations building roof blew off, windows were broken, there was water and debris everywhere.”

The air station’s Cold War-era hangar had to shelter its aircraft and those of partner national and local agencies including Border Patrol, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Drug Enforcement Agency, local police and others. As operations commander, Cmdr. Jeremy Anderson noted that all these aviation assets were sheltered “with only inches to spare.”

When the eye of the storm passed over, after hours of 150 mph winds and heavy rains, some Coast Guard members inside the hangar ventured outside only to realize they were in for another three to four hours of pummeling weather. After they finally emerged, they recounted, “It looked as if a bomb had gone off,” “like a war zone,” and “never seen anything like it.”

Anderson and executive officer, Cmdr. Toby Holdridge, designed clever communications and air traffic rules in the absence of reliable communications after the storm. Air Station Borinquen flyers were airborne as soon as possible to survey the affected areas and provide a “damage assessment.” The lack of communications restricted their range initially but, in the coming days and weeks, they began to venture into remote areas of the island, with mountains and deep canyons posing challenges for aviators and aircraft.

Lt. Matthew Hardgrove, a Borinquen HH-65 helicopter pilot had flown missions during 2017 hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria describing flying conditions as treacherous. With high mountains, deep canyons and cross winds, Puerto Rico is not the typical Coast Guard aviation environment. For Lt. Cmdr. Adam Mullins of Kodiak, Alaska, who volunteered to augment the Borinquen crews in post-Maria relief missions, flying around mountains and canyons was not new; however, he found that “the heat and humidity was the real challenge.”

Air Station Miami aviators, Lt. Cmdr. Neil White and Petty Officer 2nd Class John Ferrari likely experienced the first post-hurricane aerial views of Puerto Rico. Anticipating severe damage to Borinquen’s installations, White had pre-staged his aircraft at Guantanamo, Cuba, and sortied for Puerto Rico before hurricane winds had abated. He noted the “complete silence out of San Juan air traffic tower, usually very active.”

Air Station Borinquen Operations Officer Cmdr. Jeremy Anderson delivers relief supplies to residents in Moca, Puerto Rico, following the hurricane. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In the aftermath of the storm, White’s Casa H-144A aircraft provided communications capabilities to Sector San Juan and Air Station Borinquen. In addition, he flew countless disaster relief missions between Borinquen and Guantanamo.

Auxiliarist Carlos Colson reported to Air Station Borinquen’s main gate as soon as his family was safe. He asked the commanding officer “What can I do to help?” For the next several weeks, Colson supported Borinquen in a variety of ways from cleaning base debris to joining the commissary staff in the galley. Coast Guard lawyer Jose Suarez and Chief Security Officer Marcelo Rolon found themselves working out of the office at first conducting force accounting and, later, disaster relief missions supporting of Coast Guard families and the local populace. For weeks to come, Suarez assisted Coast Guard members with housing insurance, rental contracts and other less visible but critical legal support missions. 

Lt. Matthew Hardgrove unloads relief supplies. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard spouses and children made sacrifices as well. Days before the hurricane’s impact, evacuation flights were offered to the families of Coast Guard personnel. For each family, the decision was difficult. Lisa Anderson decided to stay, weather the hurricane and support her husband and his mission. However, the deteriorating infrastructure conditions after the disaster exposed her and her children to other dangers and she eventually decided to evacuate for their sake. It would be months before the Anderson family would reunite. This heart-wrenching scenario played-out with most every Coast Guard family, and their courage matched that of their spouses in uniform.

These recorded oral histories revealed the commitment to service, devotion to duty and willingness to make sacrifices that characterizes the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard community. Each of the interviewees made sacrifices for others and endured personal privations. The path to something that resembles normalcy has been long and tortuous for Coast Guard members in this region. It would take weeks, even months for utilities to be restored and some semblance of routine to return to their lives. Yet, repeatedly, while recording oral history interviews with these heroic men and women, I heard messages similar to that of Curry: “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

This editorial appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and is shown here in an abbreviated form. The original version is available here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.