By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith,National Guard BureauDecember 1, 2017
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Three back-to-back hurricanes that brought large-scale destruction to the Gulf Coast region, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands kept the National Guard busy during the 2017 hurricane season.
Approximately 2,800 Guard members still play an active role in recovery efforts in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, more than two months after Hurricane Maria -- the last of the back-to-back storms.
"A lot of people need our help and I joined to serve," said Pfc. Roberto Rivera, a military police officer with the Puerto Rico Army National Guard"s 480th Military Police Company.
Like many residents of Puerto Rico, his house was destroyed by wind and torrential rain brought in from Maria. But as soon as the hurricane passed, he came to the aid of his fellow Puerto Ricans affected by the storm, said Rivera.
"I just believe [other] people need more help than I do," he said.
Hurricane Harvey, the first of the three hurricanes, made landfall in Corpus Christi, Texas, Aug. 25. More than 3,000 Guard members were on duty in the immediate aftermath of the storm, primarily assisting local authorities with search and rescue operations.
"This is what we train for," said Army Brig. Gen. Patrick M. Hamilton, commander of the Texas National Guard"s Domestic Operations Task Force. "And we"re proud to stand beside our civilian partners, first responders and volunteers to serve the citizens of Texas."
When Harvey made its second landfall in Louisiana, the Texas Guard supplemented the Louisiana National Guard in response efforts.
"They were here during Katrina, and they helped us last year during the [Baton Rouge area] floods," said Army Maj. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, the adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard. "That bond, that feeling you get when you cross state borders to help those in need, to provide relief, that"s what makes the National Guard special."
While Guard members kept busy in Texas and western Louisiana, Hurricane Irma slammed through the Caribbean, making its way to Florida, where 4,000 Guard members stood ready to respond.
In the Florida Keys, Soldiers with Florida Army National Guard engineer units used heavy equipment to clear a major highway within 24 hours of the storm passing, allowing first responders and civil agencies access to the area.
"We now have the unique opportunity to help these fellow Floridians take their first steps toward rebuilding and recovery," said Army Lt. Col. Betsy Evans, commander of the Florida Army Guard's 753rd Brigade Engineer Battalion.
In the Caribbean, where the storm knocked out cell towers and power lines, Air National Guard units provided communications abilities with the Joint Integrated Site Communications Capability system.
"When we first arrived in St. Thomas, [Virgin Islands], all cell services, local phone lines and Internet services were down," said Air Force 2nd Lt. Tyler Olsen, the JISCC officer in charge with the Utah Air National Guard"s 151st Air Refueling Wing. "We were able to establish voice and data for the first time on the island since Hurricane Irma had wiped them out."
Relying on satellite communications, the JISCC system allows for communications across multiple radio, data, video and voice platforms during emergencies or large-scale disasters.
Roughly two weeks after Irma tore through Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in early September, Maria followed suit, causing widespread blackouts and many areas to be without drinkable water.
"Our unit has been supplying approximately 9,000 gallons of potable water a day to civilians," said Air Force Master Sgt. Isaac Strickler, a power production supervisor with the Ohio Air National Guard's 179th Airlift Wing, whose unit operated water purification systems in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria.
He added that many local residents were grateful for the Airmen's presence.
"Everyone has been gracious and have even brought us some homemade meals, a welcomed change from MREs (meals ready-to-eat)," said Strickler.
The Puerto Rico Army National Guard's 892nd Multi-Role Bridge Company set up a temporary bridge for people in Guajataca, Puerto Rico, allowing for transportation of municipal workers and residents.
"That's why we're proud to serve here because we are a part of creating access to the local area," said Sgt. 1st Class Santos Febus, a platoon sergeant with the 892nd MRBC.
Army Guard aviation Soldiers flew doctors, nurses and civil authorities to isolated communities unreachable by ground transportation. They also brought in needed supplies to residents.
"We delivered baby formula, diapers and other baby sundries, premature-baby medicines, insulin, feminine hygiene products, over-the-counter medication and tarps," said Army Lt. Col. Jason Lefton, commander of the New York Army National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation Regiment.
Getting supplies and personnel to affected areas meant establishing a staging point for airborne transportation. In Savannah, Georgia, various Air Guard units operated a distribution hub, providing the means to execute large-scale airlift operations.
"It was really an entire wing effort to support the ongoing recovery efforts," said Air Force Col. Shaun Perkowski, commander of the West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing, which provided C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III aircraft and their crews to move supplies and personnel. "The value of airlift cannot be underestimated."
All told, roughly 6,200 Guard members from 38 states supported relief and recovery operations in response to Maria. Additionally, more than 18,300 Guard members from 34 states and close to 21,000 Guard members from 29 states and territories supported Harvey and Irma operations, respectively.
For many Guard members, responding to the hurricanes was just part of the job.
"I got a call asking if I could deploy within 36 hours," said Air Force Maj. Mark Smith, a chaplain with the Tennessee Air National Guard's 118th Wing. "I went home, told my family goodbye, threw my gear in a bag and hit the road again. That's what we do."