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    Seattle District supports new family in Aguadilla



    Story by Dallas Edwards 

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District

    A shaky video taken from a cell phone highlights what made Puerto Rico a memorable assignment for many Corps personnel in the wake of two devastating hurricanes.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ most viewed social media video of 2017 shows a neighborhood somewhere near Aguadilla with a family gathered. What you cannot see is the destruction that hit the area just weeks earlier. The viewer quickly senses the anticipation and realizes there is something about to happen.

    Suddenly, the lights turn on in the house and you can hear people off camera excitedly comment, “There it goes!”

    The family inside erupts into cheers and starts chanting, “USA! USA!” You can hear a joyful laugh from the individuals near the camera.

    In September, Puerto Rico was hit by back-to-back hurricanes, Irma and Maria. The island suffered catastrophic damage, which left most of the island without power.

    The Corps identified a need for the Aguadilla Area Office and chose Seattle District to set up and lead it in support of power and restoration efforts in the western part of the island. This initial team consisted of Seattle District Deputy Commander Lt. Col. Andrew Olson, Quality Assurance Representative (QAR) Jim Lampman and Joint Base Lewis McChord Area Engineer Steve Kelley, who were tasked with setting up the office and beginning power restoration in the area. The desire to help the local population drove their efforts to turn the power on quickly. They were surprised by how patient, resilient and appreciative the Puerto Rican people were.

    The team wanted to make sure communication with the contractor was strong and so the goal was to co-locate the Corps office with the contractor’s area office. They set up shop at Rafael Hernandez Airport, which operated as Ramey Air Force Base up until 1974.

    There were other organizations already in place at the site, including The Federal Emergency Management Agency and several military units that focused on providing emergency food, water and medical care to the local population.

    “When we arrived in Aguadilla, we operated out of one of the Corps’ Emergency Operations trailer,” said Lampman. “The first couple of weeks [while waiting for equipment to arrive] were primarily to understand the lay of the land, assimilate the other staff members who arrived and get repairs moving with our contractor Power Secure.”

    Olson was happy with the contractor from day one and was impressed about their willingness to get the job done as efficiently as possible.

    “We were pleased to learn that [restoring power] was something they were used to doing,” explained Olson. “They had a really a good idea of what they were doing and how to operate and be efficient in approaching the problem. They simply wanted to get to work and we all had this common goal to turn the lights on from the get-go.”

    Olson was very proud of everyone on the team’s willingness to come together to help the Puerto Rican people.

    “As far as the team goes, I was always impressed with everyone’s willingness to adapt,” said Olson. “As part of this emergency response mission we had individuals with various levels of experience and everyone had an outstanding ‘can-do’ attitude and I was happy to see everyone come together to get the job done. I was honored to be part of the team.”

    Some estimates put the damages from the hurricanes in Puerto Rico at nearly $100 billion.

    “I’m not sure anyone understood the actual scope of the damage from the hurricane or the condition of the power system before it hit,” said Lampman.

    Lampman noted the Puerto Rican people’s positive attitude and kindness towards the team and that made him proud to be there.

    “The vast majority of the locals I had contact with were very interested in how long it would take to restore the power, but also very understanding that it was a long process,” said Lampman. “I found the Puerto Rican people to be friendly, with an ability to withstand adversity that I am not sure most of us in the U.S. can match. I have doubts that if parts of the mainland was without electricity for weeks, even months in some cases, that we would handle the situation with as much grace as I saw from them.”

    Lampman and other QARs would bring stories back to the area office nightly.

    “My favorite part of each day was seeing our quality assurance guys come back and share the stories from the local population,” said Olson. “People would give our guys food and they were so happy to have them there. They were very warm and receptive to our assistance.”

    The gratitude shown by the locals was a very memorable part of Olson’s deployment.

    After power was restored on Thanksgiving Day in a mountain neighborhood, members of the community provided a quick meal to the team. During the gathering, a member of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority proudly declared to the team, “Today, you are my family!”

    While it was great to see neighborhoods get their electricity turned back on, the thought of other areas without power kept the crews motivated to keep going. Sometimes people would see their neighbors’ electricity turned on and they could hear the celebration; they would still go to bed without theirs.

    “One thing about power restoration is that the lights in a house are either completely on or the house is completely dark,” explained Olson. “One family’s world could have just lit up while there friends’ nearby are still completely in the dark. Crews were always motivated by seeing the lights turn on – they would be glad for that but had a strong desire to go back and help those who were still in the dark. That feeling of urgency throughout the whole team was very cool.”

    Seattle District’s Ben Puyleart, a Quality Assurance Representative, who was deployed to the Aguadilla Area Office, filmed the video near the town of Anasco. While that video is one snapshot of one neighborhood in the weather torn island, these moments are still happening.

    At the end of March, in order to better service the last 4 percent of customers on the island, the Aguadilla office relocated to the eastern mountains of the island in Caguas and it was renamed the Montaña Area Office. In mid-April, the office leadership began to transition from Seattle District to Jacksonville District.



    Date Taken: 04.01.2018
    Date Posted: 12.19.2018 18:43
    Story ID: 304482
    Location: SEATTLE, WA, US 

    Web Views: 67
    Downloads: 0