Helping out in Puerto Rico

Pleasanton volunteer among first to witness devastation after Hurricane Maria

Pleasanton's Bill Caldwell is on the left in this photo of his disaster survivor assistance team with its interpreters. (Contributed photo)

Bill Caldwell remembers the laments of Hurricane Maria survivors bemoaning their losses as "todo, todo, todo" -- "everything, everything, everything."

Caldwell, a Pleasanton resident, was on a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) team that worked in remote regions of southeast Puerto Rico, the first side of the island to be hit.

"I was witness to what seemed to be a post-apocalyptic world -- numerous dead animals, a boat lodged in trees 20 feet off the ground, corpses and coffins washed away from cemeteries, metal siding and roofing twisted into ornamental pretzels," he said.

"Nearly half of the trees being uprooted, vehicles crushed and turned upside down, homes torn apart and stripped down to frames, the remnants of a rain forest with trees and plants being stripped of nearly all foliage, and a washing machine ending up approximately a half mile from its original location."

Caldwell is branch chief of the Mechanical Systems and Analysis Branch of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, and last fall the call went out to all government agencies asking for six-week volunteers to help FEMA with Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas and Hurricane Irma sufferers in Florida. He and his wife Lee Ann discussed it and decided it was "a no-brainer."

Just a week later, Caldwell was undergoing training in Anniston, Ala., when Hurricane Maria struck the Virgin Islands on Sept. 19 and continued on to ravage Puerto Rico.

Caldwell, who already had a top security clearance, was pulled out of his training class of 150 to become part of a FEMA disaster survivor assistance group of 40 people. They are the first to visit an area to assess the victims' urgent needs, register them for future assistance and provide data back to the operations center.

"They said, 'We think we have a role for you in one of the more austere situations. We don't know where you will be sleeping,'" Caldwell recalled. "We were advised to go to the local Walmart and get bug spray, etc."

He was on a flight to San Juan at 6 a.m. the next morning.

"It happened so fast. There was a lot of excitement," Caldwell said. "We arrived in San Juan six days after Maria struck. The path went right across the heart of Puerto Rico so every part was hit hard."

At first he stayed on an old Navy training ship docked in San Juan Bay, then he moved to a hotel, which seemed comparatively luxurious, although damaged by the storm.

"Then after two days the power went out," Caldwell said. "The water was controlled by electricity so we took shocking cold showers in the morning."

Caldwell's crew of six worked long hours, with hair-raising drives from San Juan to outlying regions over damaged roads taking 13-14 hours each day. In many cases they were the first outside help to arrive.

"When they knew we were coming, they would line up. When we arrived, they started applauding and touching us to see if we were real," Caldwell recalled. "We were in our FEMA vests and trying to help as many people as we could. I felt like a rock star, everyone waiting for us to arrive."

They provided support to more than 2,500 survivors in their first two weeks. Every 15 days, they got one day off.

"Our team encountered hundreds and hundreds of people who had lost virtually everything, seeking shelter, food and water," Caldwell said. "The most memorable cases include an elderly mute man who broke down crying as he thought he couldn't adequately communicate his needs."

"One fellow, his house was gone but he insisted he did not want to register with us because he said he knew 'other people are in greater need than me,'" Caldwell remembered. "A lot of families were helping one another out. Those not hit as hard or whose residences were constructed out of concrete helped those who'd been living in wooden houses."

The crew would give assistance where needed. Once, seeing a Red Cross staff that was short-handed, they stopped to carry 20 to 50 pounds of provisions a few hundred yards to survivor vehicles, helping more than 4,500 people by the end of the day.

"I also had a number of opportunities to get my 'fix-it' fix," Caldwell said. "Outside of helping with IT and system admin functions when out in the field, I was able to repair a door at a homeless shelter, repair a mayor's CB radio, troubleshoot a police vehicle ignition system, repair a survivor's generator, install a washing machine in a medical center and repair a leaking tire for one of our field vehicles."

The work was physically and mentally demanding, Caldwell noted, which led to friction in some of the groups of volunteers but not his crew.

"What really made a difference for our team's performance was the inclusion of younger, college-bound Puerto Ricans who served as our interpreters ... intelligent and dedicated individuals who were extremely proud to help their island -- and they had a great sense of humor that I frequently tapped into," he said.

"One side benefit of my deployment is that I believe my driving skills have become sharpened in ways that I wouldn't normally imagine," he added, explaining that at one point he assumed driving duties of the Jeep Wrangler.

"Driving in Puerto Rico is quite an experience and the police seem to be exceptionally forgiving," he said. "With power gone from virtually all signal lights, intersections -- highway or residential -- become a free-for-all."

By the end of his 45-day assignment, Caldwell said he was impressed by the signs of recovery -- roads being cleared, power restored to critical infrastructure and medical centers, repairs made to residential and commercial structures, and cellphones coming to life.

He also noticed the plant life turning green again, which he attributed to the nearly 100% humidity, a shock to his system in the beginning.

"The temperature was hovering in the 90s, and the humidity felt like 100%," he said. "That was an adjustment. It's very uncomfortable sweating the entire day."

But that was not the hardest part.

"Without a doubt, the toughest part of the job was the emotional experience of having to deal with people who have lost virtually everything," Caldwell said.

"The poor island is still in need of help," he added. "Its infrastructure was so frail that it will take a really long time to recover."

NASA recently recognized Caldwell with a medal, but he also wants to credit those who filled in for him while he was gone. He noted there was also an adjustment when he returned to his desk job, and he appreciated being able to flip on a light switch again.

"I'm still in contact with a number of people I met down there, including the college students who were our interpreters," he said. "I promised I would go back. My wife and I might take a vacation to Puerto Rico and see what the island looks like when it is lush."

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Like this comment
Posted by MustangSally
a resident of Dublin
on May 14, 2018 at 9:47 am

I was in Puerto Rico the week after Christmas last year, and the local people were SO appreciative of each tourist they saw who came and spent some dollars to help their economy. What a great story Mr. Caldwell tells. The island is so beautiful, yet they continue to struggle with power outages and bureaucratic incompetency. We could all take a lesson from the humility of Puerto Ricans!

2 people like this
Posted by Carolyn Ainsworth
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on May 14, 2018 at 11:11 am

What a vivid picture Bill presents, and it makes me ever so thankful for all the things we take for granted. He’s a hero as far as i’m concerned.

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