By David Vergun, Army News ServiceJanuary 26, 2018
WASHINGTON -- Hurricane Maria destroyed the lives of many when it made landfall in Puerto Rico last year. But for one family there, Army ties helped make post-storm recovery just a bit less painful.
On the afternoon of Sept. 19, 2017, the wind and rain had picked up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. By 8 p.m. that evening, Paula Johansson's house started groaning and shaking.
Then the electricity went out. Hurricane Maria was already showing just how devastating it would be to those who lived on the island.
As the hurricane approached, Johansson was texting with her husband, Spc. Frank Medina, who was thousands of miles away, deployed to the other side of the world in Kuwait.
Medina, a Puerto Rico National Guard Soldier, said he feared for the well-being of his wife. Making matters worse, because he was deployed, he would be unable to stand by her side and help her weather the storm.
Because she didn't have power in her home, Johansson was unable to find out on her own the latest regarding the storm. Instead, she had to rely on her husband, located on the other side of the world, to relay to her official word about was happening right over her head.
"Is the worst over?" Johansson asked her husband, via text message.
"No, the hurricane won't make landfall until tomorrow," he replied.
At 11 p.m., even cell phone connectivity ceased, and Johansson lost the only link to her husband and to the outside world. By then, local authorities had issued orders for Johansson to evacuate her home, which was considered in the flood zone.
She wouldn't evacuate alone, however. During the time of the hurricane, Johansson's mother was visiting her from Karlskrona, Sweden. Per the evacuation orders, she and her mother left to stay with Johansson's mother-in-law.
By Sept. 20, the winds of Hurricane Maria had intensified to 155 mph. It was just shy of a Category 5 hurricane when it made landfall.
"It was like being in a horror movie. I don't want to sound dramatic, but I thought I might die," Johansson said, adding that she was praying a lot for herself, as well as her family and friends.
Her mother-in-law's home proved adequate sanctuary during the hurricane. It withstood the storm admirably, Johansson said, and she, her mother and mother-in-law all survived without injury.
"But poor Frank didn't know that," Johansson said. "We didn't have cell service until Saturday," four days after they had last texted.
Following the hurricane, a curfew was in place because power lines were down. Johansson wasn't able to get out to inspect the damage to her own home until Sept. 23.
When she was able to get out to inspect damage to her own home, Johansson found that her house had flooded, along with those of her neighbors. Her home, she said, was a total loss.
"Neighbors were crying," she said. Everyone was throwing waterlogged furniture outside.
Since all the food in the supermarkets had been pilfered, the three ladies survived on crackers and some canned food, she said.
Medina told his wife to get off the island as soon as possible, "go anywhere, anywhere you can go," he had told her.
But when she got to the airport, she said there was chaos in the terminal. Lights were out, flights were all canceled, and no one had word on when they would resume.
It wasn't until 10 days after the hurricane, she said, that she and her mother were able to evacuate Puerto Rico and go to Sweden.
In November, Johansson and Medina reunited in Puerto Rico. They no longer had a home and the future looked bleak, Johansson said.
But despite the loss of their belongings, the couple's luck would soon turn for the better.
Medina, who joined the Guard in 2012, had always wanted to go on active duty.
He said his father was a Marine and his grandfather was in the Army and all his life he knew he wanted to have a military career.
In the weeks following the hurricane, Medina was able to transition to active duty.
Today, the couple lives in Fort Bliss, Texas, where Medina works as a driver in a motor transport unit.
The couple now have some furniture on loan and Medina said that he's saving money so they can purchase their own furniture soon.
Medina said he plans to make the Army a career. He said he loves wearing the uniform, the discipline, the physical fitness, the deployments, and everything else about Army life.
Medina also said he's grateful for the Soldiers who helped him to transfer to active duty.
Medina said he'll always remember the assistance the Army gave him and the concern the Army had for his family's well-being following the hurricane. He said he knows that one day, when he's a non-commissioned officer, his own experience will motivate him to look after the welfare of his own Soldiers in the same way others looked after him.