By David San MiguelApril 20, 2018
No contact from home in two weeks nearly drove Nory Maldonado half out of her mind.
Hurricane Maria had decimated Puerto Rico, downing power lines, blowing out buildings and littering streets with waste and debris.
A native of Puerto Rico herself and a procurement analyst with the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, Maldonado was all too familiar with frequent storms.
"Initially, I wasn't too concerned. We get hurricanes every single year," she said. "But once it came closer and closer, I looked at the intensity of the storm, the intensity of the winds; that's when I started to worry."
Her mother, Minerva Gonzalez Marin, still resided in Utuado, a modest and historic city of 33,149 founded by the Spanish in 1739. Located in the central mountain region, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned residents there to evacuate; forecast models indicated that the hurricane would likely rip through the region.
"We kept in touch until about the 19th of September (the day before the storm)," Maldonado said, "and that was that."
Last she heard was that her mother joined her brother, Hendryx Corraliza Gonzalez, in Manati, a town closer to the coast but at a safer location away from the hurricane's projected path.
Once the storm hit, and with no electricity or fuel and transportation greatly restricted, communication and travel to and from the island was difficult and, in most cases, non-existent.
"I was a wreck," she said. "You always think the worst."
Fortune was on her side, however, and word of their survival finally filtered down through her sister-in-law, Edna Maldonado Rivera. She worked at a construction supply company and had access to electricity, computer technology and transportation.
"Edna drove to my mother's house, shot some video and once back at the office, uploaded and sent it to me," Maldonado said. "That was two-and-a-half weeks after the storm, but at least I knew she was okay. Still, those first few weeks were tough. My mom had no electricity or water."
Despite any misgivings, her mother reluctantly left to join her daughter in Huntsville.
"My mom spent about a month here," Maldonado said. "She's a strong-willed woman, hard-headed but with a kind heart. The storm had damaged her seamstress shop and the landlord wanted it torn down. So, she was anxious to get back to work, relocate and take care of her customers."
Attributes Maldonado inherited and that helped her pursue and earn a bachelor's degree in microbiology from Puerto Rico University, a master's from Universidad del Este in Puerto Rico, and an unquenchable thirst for challenge.
When Huntsville Center issued a call-out for volunteers to support the recovery effort, she didn't hesitate and accepted the challenge. Maldonado was immediately assigned to the San Juan Quality Assurance Roofing Team, working alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
There she got an opportunity to witness the storm devastation and its demoralizing effect on the people who lived in the hardest hit region.
"Those close to the downtown areas had power, but once you got up the mountains into Bayamon and Guaynabo, I saw a different story," Maldonado said. "There, the people really needed help to get back on their feet. The poverty in those communities is something I've never seen before, and that's a lot to say since I grew up in Puerto Rico."
Still she said, "Puerto Ricans are resilient, constantly overcoming adversity. I encountered happy and grateful people who were glad to see us there. I also encountered people, frustrated and tired of waiting for power and normal living conditions."
A return to normalcy, Maldonado says, is well underway.
As of April 17, USACE's Task Force Power Restoration in coordination with FEMA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and electric industry partners have restored power to 97.15 percent of the 1.47 million pre-storm customers who are able to receive electric power. In addition USACE, as mission assigned by FEMA, has installed more than 850 emergency power generators, 59,469 blue roofs, and the removal of 3.86 million cubic yards of debris.
Col. John Hurley, commander, Huntsville Center, said USACE is prepared and ready to respond to natural and man-made disasters as well as overseas contingencies.
"When disasters occur, USACE teams and other resources are mobilized from across the country to assist local districts and offices to deliver our response missions," he said, "and HNC employees have a reputation for their willingness to volunteer.
"Deploying," he added, "can be one of the most challenging and rewarding professional and personal experiences of your career. Each deployment affords the employee an opportunity to learn and grow -- similar to a developmental assignment. It can also be that 'once in a lifetime opportunity' to make a difference and be a part of history. The experience you'll gain while deployed can't be acquired anywhere else in the Corps, and it can be satisfying to know you are helping people in the affected area recover from the disaster."
"I am forever grateful to HNC's leadership for allowing me to volunteer," Maldonado said. "The mission opened my eyes. I would recommend everyone to experience it at least once to feel how personally rewarding it is to help others; and how blessed we are to have more than we need."