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Shredded trees at El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Partners in chaos

Service duo brings hope to Puerto Rico

San Juan, Puerto Rico – The Jeep was pretty new, but battered already. It was dusty, and someone had stolen the spare wheel from the rear. Flying debris knocked a hole in the top, too.

But it rolled, and rolled well. It also had a spot on the dash for the “Captain’s Log,” the name the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Jon Wallace gave to a dog-eared notebook.

As the Service’s incident commander during three weeks of relief and rescue work in Puerto Rico recently, he used it to keep a tally on what had been done, what still needed attention. It was a scorecard on the Service’s progress in helping get Puerto Rico back on its feet following Hurricane Maria.

The entries were self-explanatory:

Return 2 LEOs [law enforcement officers] from St. Croix to Puerto Rico; and Retrieve 2 generators and cable wires to aviary for Vieques NWR [National Wildlife Refuge].

The notes began almost the moment after the Sept. 20 hurricane passed through, when people waited eight hours for gasoline and prayed for food. They continued until Wallace left the U.S. territory in mid-October, after gas lines had dwindled and citizens weren’t afraid of starving.

On a recent morning, his days in Puerto Rico dwindling, Wallace sat in the rider’s seat of the gray Jeep. At the wheel was Robert Trincado, a fire-control officer based in Florida. In Puerto Rico, he was in effect, the No. 2 guy, Wallace’s closest assistant. They’ve known each other for 13 years. They’ve fought fires, cleaned up after hurricanes, watched communities rebuild.

“Where to?” Trincado asked.

Two men sitting on the bumper of a Jeep.
Robert Trincado, left, and Jon Wallace. They spent three weeks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Wallace said nothing for a minute. He looked out the Jeep window and took it all in – a field already turning green just days after the hurricane split trees, tore apart bushes, flooded valleys and virtually destroyed the island’s electrical grid. The field shimmered with morning dew, gleaming like the largest emerald in the universe. Beyond, the mountains rose in a series of fog-shrouded waves. Above the hills, a few tattered clouds piled into each other.

It belied the ugliness closer by – a KFC sign toppled against a fence, the colonel’s genial face beaming at the sky; the sides of a corrugated building tossed and crumpled like aluminum foil.

Wallace refocused. “To Walmart.”

The Jeep stopped at a Walmart parking lot. It was, at that time, one of the few places outside San Juan where cell service was easily available. Before making his daily call to the Service’s morning update in Atlanta, Wallace paused to give Maria its due.

A man looking over a table full of food and supplies.
Jon Wallace, who oversaw emergency response operations for the Service, surveys supplies before they are given to those who need it. Photo by USFWS.

It was a bad storm, said Wallace, who also responded to Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 tempest that crippled New Orleans. Maria was like Katrina – with one exception: The 2017 storm hit an island. Every logistical consideration – bringing repair crews to right fallen power poles, clearing roadways, delivering food – became a challenge.

“There’s been so much more work done in Puerto Rico that we’re not used to having to work with,” he said.

A quick response

He’s 49 with a kid in college and another in high school. His partner, Trincado, is eight years younger, dad to a high schooler and a child in elementary school.

Each had hurriedly said goodbye to wives and children and taken a federal flight to Puerto Rico in the days immediately following the hurricane. They arrived when the island territory teetered uncertainly between order and chaos, when basic services had all but vanished.

During their stay, Wallace and Trincado oversaw the distribution of more than 20 generators, 24 pallets of water and 30 pallets of food. Service workers disbursed them across the island, as well as at Vieques, a smaller island just east of the mainland, and at the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A man attaching a blue tarp to a damaged roof.
Soon after Hurricane Maria passed Robert Trincado helped a homeowner attach a tarp to a damaged roof. Photo by USFWS.

They also directed crews that took care of an array of must-do tasks: cutting away fallen trees, knocking on doors of ruined homes to make sure the inhabitants were OK, offering encouraging words.

“We’ve just had to work that out,” Wallace said. “We’ve had to stay flexible.”

Not so, said his colleague “We don’t have to be flexible,” Trincado says. “We have to be fluid.”

Wallace gave a halfway nod, and thought for a moment, searching for the right phrase.

“It’s been interesting,” he said, finally.

‘God bless’

It was the sort of mission providing memories that will last forever.

The Service learned of an 8-year-old girl, a leukemia patient cut off from chemotherapy when her hospital closed. Workers scrambled to find another facility for the child.

There was Vieques, where the deputy mayor pleaded with workers to send additional law enforcement. The Service contacted other federal agencies and helped keep order on the small island.

And there was that memorable encounter, somewhere on the highway leading to Cabo Rojo. A Service officer making a delivery to the southwestern city stopped to offer some women a precious commodity: water. For a moment, none of the women spoke.

“God bless,” one managed.

Not all endeavors appeared to have had a divine presence.

For example, a planned flight to Vieques, a 10-minute hop east from mainland Puerto Rico, was canceled after Wallace and a Service pilot decided a late-morning wind was too stiff for the single-engine airplane.

With a few raindrops hitting the ground, Wallace shrugged. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

The next day, sunny and warm, was perfect for the flight. Wallace and Trincado got to Vieques to install a telephone and internet receptor at the refuge’s headquarters. They then flew from Vieques to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, where they performed the same task.

Three men installing communications equipment.
Robert Trincado (left) works with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services colleague Jon Wallace to restore phone and Internet services atop the headquarters of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, Puerto Rico. Watching is Service pilot Steve Earsom. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Another challenge: getting crews on and off the island. Wallace spent a half-day working with different federal agencies to ensure that some Service workers wanting to go home caught a military supply flight from Puerto Rico to Florida. If the island had had cell service, the snafu would have taken an hour to clear up; instead, it took four.

The sun was dipping into the west. Wallace watched as the workers walked into a hangar, duffel bags and other equipment slung over their shoulders. They sat on the floor, waiting for a big, gray airplane headed back to the states.

Wallace slid into the rider’s seat. He cast Trincado a quick look.

“Today,” he said, “has been a challenge.”

The Jeep picked up speed and eased into traffic that moved without benefit of stop lights. Wallace reached for the “Captain’s Log” and read the results. He sighed. Not the greatest day.

Then he nodded. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we’ll hit it hard.”

Contact

Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist
mark_r_davis@fws.gov, (404) 679-7291

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