By Greg FudererDecember 6, 2017
(This is the final article in a five-part series on Puerto Rico, the people who came to support the response and recovery, and their homecoming.
While José Sánchez is in a high-visibility position, his primary responsibility to assist the people of Puerto Rico recover from the disaster that was Hurricane Maria, regardless of the specific task, is no different from those highlighted in the previous installments. Whether restoring electrical power, removing debris, inspecting for temporary roof installation eligibility, assisting with flood risk reduction measures, conducting structural assessments or providing technical assistance, all USACE responders gave a dedicated effort. None gave more on a personal level than those who call Puerto Rico home.)
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Homecoming is an American fall tradition, full of festivities, excitement and reunions. For several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees originally from Puerto Rico, homecoming has been a different experience this year.
José Sánchez currently serves as the director of PR Grid Restoration Program. He is the director of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi and recently had a temporary assignment as the USACE Director of Contingency Operations and Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.
Arriving about a week after Hurricane Maria hit the island, Sánchez said he was stunned to see the damage.
"The de-foliaged trees looked like it had been wiped out by a tornado," he said. "I work in Mississippi. We have tornadoes there. It looked exactly like that. It was a very sad story. Debris was everywhere, metal, windows, glass. Power lines were down. It looked like a war zone."
Sánchez said the challenge for him is to get as many assets and resources as he can to help restore power throughout the island as efficiently as possible.
"I can relate to the situation. I was here for Hugo in '89," said Sánchez, who grew up in Guaynabo and unexpectedly earned a tennis scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico. "I've been to responses in Honduras and Nicaragua. That experience to this situation is definitely a plus."
On the other hand, Sánchez said, "I asked myself, 'What prepares you for this?' The answer is, nothing. I can bring engineering to the effort, but nothing really prepares you."
"You have to put aside your emotions and do the job," he continued. "For me, that was to revert to my engineering, my background, be analytical. We have a job to do. It's no time to get emotional."
Sánchez said restoring the island's power grid is a "huge endeavor," and being unable to control all the pieces is an obstacle. But that is balanced with the satisfaction of being able to contribute to the recovery.
"Establishing trust with government officials and the people at large is essential," he said. "Ensure them we're here until the mission is complete, that we're doing things right, and that they're not forgotten."
Sánchez said the job entails more than successfully restoring power.
"Each passing day, 3.4 million people were without power," he said. "And that affects everything. People were in lines for eight hours for gas. The ATMs were all down. It limited access to water and affected people's health. We are trying to get people a normal life."
And normal life, to Sánchez, is personal.
"The island has given me so much: culture, education, things to be happy about and celebrate, mourning, everything," he continued. "Coming here was the least I can do."
Sánchez said being the face and voice of the USACE power mission is something he never expected.
"It's an honor to even be asked to lead this effort," Sánchez said. "It's a very humbling experience.
We have a great team, great people, working toward one goal, to restore power, working hard for the people of Puerto Rico."
(As the responders for whom Puerto Rico was their original home complete their Hurricane Maria missions, they return to the familiar surroundings of their districts, work assignments, families and friends for their own homecomings. Each expressed a desire and expectation to deploy in the future to assist those impacted by natural disasters.)