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NEWS | Nov. 21, 2017

Puerto Rico relief efforts hit close to home

By Staff Sgt. Teresa J. Cleveland 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

 On Sept. 20, 2017, Iker Urruchi was on a ship off the coast of Seattle, constantly checking for news updates on his phone when he could get a signal.

Hurricane Maria had just made landfall on his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico, and the boatswain’s mate was trying to discover what was happening to his family.

A month and a half later, Urruchi boarded Military Sealift Command’s USNS Brittin at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., with approximately 80 other U.S. military, civilian and contracted personnel to deliver humanitarian supplies to the battered island.

The effects of both hurricanes Maria and Irma, who damaged the island just two weeks before, left the majority of the population without power. Several units from across the Department of Defense, including members from the 690th Rapid Port Opening Element, 832nd Transportation Battalion, 597th Trans. Brigade based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., traveled to the Port of Ponce, Puerto Rico with generators, water and medical supplies to help those affected.

As soon as Urruchi discovered the Brittin was scheduled to head to Puerto Rico, he started reaching out to family and friends to find out what he could do to help.

“The ship started out with just a few hundred pieces of equipment or supplies, and then ended up fully loaded and scheduled to make multiple trips,” said Urruchi. “It’s home, and I want to be able to provide as much of that relief as possible.”

For members like Urruchi, the mission meant bringing aid to their own families and friends, and for others, it was a means to help those who had experienced similar hardships.

Restoring hope

The Brittin arrived in Ponce, Puerto Rico on Nov. 3 where it would be docked several times over the next few weeks unloading supplies. After hurricanes Irma and Maria, Urruchi said the most difficult thing was not being able to communicate with family and friends. He said being part of the relief supply transport mission held meaning close to his heart, as his family lives in Ponce.

“I couldn’t speak to my family for two to three weeks after the storms hit,” said Urruchi. “When I finally was able to contact them, I found out they were fortunately not hit too hard, but other family and friends were struggling a lot more.”

Upon arriving in Puerto Rico for the first unload, Urruchi discovered things were much worse than his family had lead on, not wanting to worry him any more than he already was. According to Urruchi, although more than 70 percent of the island is still without power, many Puerto Ricans are hopeful with each ship’s arrival.

“In Puerto Rico, what we have on the island is all we have, so they’re not used to seeing this much military mobilization. It’s helping raise their spirits,” said Urruchi. “I definitely think it’s going to have a big visual and psychological impact on the people of Puerto Rico because they know they’re not alone.”

An unexpected homecoming

While Urruchi was traveling to Ponce, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Eliezer Casas, 690th RPOE, 832nd Trans. Bn. Battalion, 597th Trans. Bde. distribution yard NCO in charge, was already in place, ready to unload the Brittin’s supplies.  As a native Puerto Rican, Casas had just taken an unexpected trip home—one he had hadn’t made in 20 years. Though the circumstances of his return were not ideal, he remained optimistic about being able to help his community and family through humanitarian relief.

“People in Puerto Rico don’t have power, water, electricity or cash to acquire the things they need to survive,” said Casas. “So each of these shipments (are) going to help more and more people as we unload the electrical trucks and generators and try to get supplies to the people who need them the most.”

During his time on the island, Casas and his unit left the Port of Ponce to deliver pallets of water to those in Jayuya, a town roughly an hour away. This delivery helped the U.S. Army Soldiers better understand just how much these supplies meant to the people of Puerto Rico, said Casas.

“As we’re getting ready to leave, a lady we gave water to hugged one of my Soldiers and cried, telling him ‘thank you’ in Spanish, and he started crying too because it touched his heart,” said Casas. “I explained to my Soldiers that all they see is the boat and everything coming off the ship, but you don’t see the impact you have on these people until you start delivering water and food to them.”

Shared hardship

Some on the Brittin also felt a deep connection to the mission, yet weren’t from Puerto Rico at all. Twelve years ago, Alfred Murray was working for the Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia in Germany, watching the news as Hurricane Katrina plowed through his family’s home in Long Beach, Mississippi, in August 2005. Being so far from home, Murray was powerless to help his wife and two children with the devastation they would endure as they, and several of their neighbors, lost their homes and most of their belongings.

“Our house was three blocks from the beach, and all the houses between the southern end of my street and the beach were completely destroyed,” said Murray. “We had eight feet of water come through our home—just enough to ruin everything, but we were just lucky enough we were able to rebuild what we had.”

Due to logistics and lack of transportation, it took Murray a month to get home to his family. By the time he returned home, his wife was able to acquire a camper to live in while they worked to rebuild. In order to afford the construction repairs, Murray got a job as the chief mate on the Brittin, while his wife made most of the repairs.

“There were no contractors available to get the job done, so my wife ended up doing most of the contracting herself, which is what most people ended up doing,” said Murray. “In a disaster like that you rely on family and neighbors and people that know how to do things, and you just fix it yourself the best that you can.”

Now as captain of the Brittin, Murray is in charge of taking the ship loaded with relief aid equipment from organizations across the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Peninsula Emergency Management Agency and other mission partners to Puerto Rico.

According to Murray, it took several years for their home to be fully restored, while many neighborhoods still remain in shambles. Although his home has been fully repaired, he still remembers the pain and struggle his family and neighbors went through after enduring such destruction.

“I have been through the same things the people in Puerto Rico are going through now, so I understand how difficult it is and how long it is going to take them to rebuild,” said Murray. “There’s not much I can do on the mainland, but I am fortunate in that my trade gives me this opportunity to bring aid to the people that need it the most.”

Moving forward

With Murray at the helm, the Brittin left the Port of Ponce on Nov. 7, bound for Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. Urruchi and the personnel aboard returned to Puerto Rico roughly 10 days later with a new shipment, while Casas and his Soldiers remained on the island, waiting to unload another vessel in the coming days.

As the Brittin and other vessels continue to take humanitarian relief supplies to Puerto Rico, members of the ships’ crews and service members on the ground remain steadfast, delivering support and helping the resilient islanders restore their homes and lives.