By Holly KuzmitskiDecember 6, 2017
VICKSBURG, Miss. --When Dr. David Pittman, director of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, issued a call for ERDC employees to fill posts as Blue Roof technical administrators in Hurricane-Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico, a group of twenty University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez alumni enthusiastically answered.
Marielys Ramos-Villanueva, a research civil engineer in the Coastal Hydraulic Laboratory, deployed to the destroyed island on Oct. 7 as part of recovery efforts. She is now the lead of the north and central areas of the island, covering 19 municipalities and coordinating 85 individuals. "As area lead, I am helping people do their jobs the best they can," she said.
The other ERDC employees are serving in various capacities around the island for Operation Blue Roof. Omar Esquilin-Mangual, a research civil engineer in the Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, is lead of the island's southern area for the program.
Ramos-Villanueva and the other volunteers were initially stunned by the devastation they saw when they arrived on the island. "At first it was intense emotionally; we couldn't sleep," she said.
"It was really shocking-it was pitch black at night because there was no power. Everything was destroyed; electric polls were in the middle of the road." She saw where landslides had carried houses along with them and bridges had collapsed. "One area had 25 bridges that collapsed," she said.
She said the central part of the island is where the most help is needed. "The central part of the island has smaller roads instead of the highways that ring the outside of the island, and the bridges have collapsed," she said.
She noted that they have been asked to return from the field at about 5:30 p.m. every day, because the roads are difficult to see once it's dark. "When the bridges are out, we have to cross the rivers with our vehicles," she said.
Ramos-Villanueva is working 12-hour days, seven days a week to accomplish the mission. "After 30 days I had a day off, but I went into the office anyway," she said.
She said the positive attitude of the local citizens they are trying to help is very inspiring, "No matter the conditions, the people are usually so happy; they offer you water and food," she said.
Ramos-Villanueva is scheduled to return to Mississippi on December 15, but she is thinking of staying longer. "I may come back a week after that or stay here another month, because the last batch of inspections for the tarps is at the end of January," she said.
She feels they are contributing to the island's relief efforts. "This is a very rewarding experience," she said. "I am certain we're doing a really good job here for the resources we have."
Damarys Acevedo-Mackey, a research environmental engineer in the Environmental Laboratory, is one of the 20 UPRM alumni volunteers. She agreed that the experience has been very worthwhile and that they are helping the island recover. "Being able to help out Puerto Rico has been both a professional and inner growth experience," she said.
"There are days when you finish the work with tears in your eyes because you realize that there are still people living without basic necessities like water, electricity, a roof, or a house. However, at the same time, you feel excited, happy and grateful to be able to help your people in Puerto Rico and make a positive impact on their lives."
In addition to the UPRM alumni, many additional ERDC staff members deployed in support of hurricane relief efforts in various locations, including Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and others.
Operation Blue Roof is a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to FEMA, the blue roof is a blue reinforced plastic tarp material that is made available to those with damaged structures resulting from the recent hurricane activity. The tarp covers damaged areas, preventing further exposure to the elements. In order to be eligible to receive the blue tarp, the prospective recipient must sign a legal agreement that permits the Corps contractors access to the property so they can assess damage to the home.