By Daniel. P. Elkins, Mission and Installation Contracting Command Public Affairs OfficeDecember 22, 2017
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Dec. 22, 2017) -- As the brutal force of hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico in September leaving in its wake untold devastation, a rare occurrence unfolded as those responsible for supporting Army recovery efforts were themselves victims of the natural disaster.
After reaching maximum sustained winds of 185 mph as a category 5 hurricane, Irma brushed north of Puerto Rico walloping its residents, including staff members from the Mission and Installation Contracting Command office at Fort Buchanan who are responsible for providing contracting support to the garrison and assigned DOD tenant organizations.
"We watched it decimate other Caribbean Islands," said Christine Davis, director of MICC-Fort Buchanan.
Davis said installation leaders and island residents are accustom to the weather storm patterns during hurricane season and while no extraordinary precautions were taken, employees and residents went about undertaking their typical disaster preparedness measures that included the installation of storm shutters, protecting electronics with plastic and stocking additional grocery necessities. Following Irma, Davis said base operations were back to normal at the installation within five days.
"We were all very grateful that Irma slid north, but by the middle of the following week, while Puerto Rico was operating as a base for the recovery of the islands impacted by Irma, Hurricane Maria was on track for a direct hit," Davis recalled. "While there was no sense of panic, there was a general acceptance this was going to be a very serious storm. That recognition was supported as the storm grew in strength and size over the following days."
Hurricane Irma prompted the garrison to activate its emergency operation center as infrastructure failed island-wide. Following an accounting of family members and personnel, it was another three days before power and water could be restored. Operating with essential personnel only, the rush to execute essential contracts in support of installation priorities between the storms became paramount.
Operating with the authorization under a disaster declaration by President Donald Trump, the contracting director coordinated the purchase of generators from the Navy Exchange the day before Hurricane Maria made landfall using increased Government Purchase Card limits.
"We moved quickly to secure generators for on-base housing," Davis said. "There were no generators to be secured on the economy. We had no way of knowing that would be the only way base housing residents would have power for the next three weeks."
Similar to Irma, employees were released at noon the day before Hurricane Maria made landfall. Davis sheltered in place at the contracting office, which is co-located in the department of public works building, to support the contracting needs of the garrison leadership. After experiencing the first hurricane, Davis said she learned to collect GPS coordinates of where her team members planned to ride out the storm.
"That was not something I would have never thought about doing before, and it was still five days before I heard from people," she recalled.
Having not yet regained any electrical power at her home since the first hurricane two weeks earlier, her husband joined her at the office to prevent being separated by the approaching storm. In preparation for Maria, they stocked in the office 30 gallons of water, cash, passports and other important paperwork, two chainsaws and 30 gallons of gas.
"We didn't know if we were going to have to cut our way back home or cut our way out of something," she said. "So just your typical Red Cross prep stuff. In the end, the DPW used our chainsaws and gas."
Weakening to a category 4 by the time it made landfall, Hurricane Maria barreled directly over Puerto Rico Sept. 19 paralyzing the island.
"We watched the trees on the other side of the parking lot lean all the way over and get stripped bare," she said. "The foliage in Puerto Rico is incredibly dense; suddenly you could see further than you could ever see before."
Following the storm, only 5 percent of the population had cell phone service, less than 50 percent of the population had access to potable water and the entire island was without power, triggering one of the largest disaster responses in U.S. history, according to the Federal Emergency Management Association.
The devastation triggered a response by an estimated 17,000 civilians and service members representing 35 federal agencies, including MICC Soldiers from the 419th Contracting Support Brigade.
And although uniformed members responding to the humanitarian relief effort along with those at Fort Buchanan empathized with the situation, Davis makes clear that most cannot discern the gravity of circumstances without experiencing it firsthand.
"I hear particularly from the military, 'We understand what you're going through,'" the Fort Dodge, Iowa, native said. "Unless you had to take your family on deployment with you -- your children, your parents, your sick grandparents -- and you have been the one to solely coordinate the logistics and pay for it, then you don't understand what they're going through.
"I don't understand deployment, I get that, but they're not the same," said Davis, who slept on the floor of her office for two and a half weeks following Maria's landfall. "I've got a team that shows up to work every day and figures out how to get generators and water for the Soldiers so that they can perform their mission. They go home, and they don't have it. That's the kind of team I have."
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of three articles with the Mission and Installation Contracting Command director at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, recounting her experiences throughout the 2017 hurricane season devastating the island.