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National Guard Plans Relief Efforts as Hurricane Maria Slams Puerto Rico

By Army Sgt. Juanita Philip and Sgt. 1st Class Jessica Barnett National Guard Bureau

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ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 20, 2017 — National Guard troops and members of federal agencies throughout the Caribbean region are hunkering down and making disaster relief preparations as Hurricane Maria made landfall today in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, with winds of 150 mph, weather officials said.

Puerto Rico hit again by hurricane
Puerto Rico Army National Guard members work on clearing Highway 511 from Ponce to Jayuya in Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Sept. 11, 2017. Today, Hurricane Maria is battering the hard-hit island territory. Puerto Rico Army National Guard photo by Spc. Agustin Montanez
Puerto Rico hit again by hurricane Road Clearance after Hurricane Irma
Puerto Rico Army National Guard members work on clearing Highway 511 from Ponce to Jayuya in Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Sept. 11, 2017. Today, Hurricane Maria is battering the hard-hit island territory. Puerto Rico Army National Guard photo by Spc. Agustin Montanez

With Maria following a similar path as Hurricane Irma, the U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard is once again preparing for another massive storm; this one, coming at St. Croix instead of St. Thomas and St. John.

Joint operations center personnel have spent the last 48 hours preparing for the second natural disaster in two weeks.

"We spent the last 48 hours coming up with a good bed-down plan for [Virgin Islands National Guard] forces and any [Emergency Management Assistance Compact] forces still on the ground," said Army Maj. Ryan Barry, acting joint operations center battle captain for the night shift.

Making Preparations

"We are adapting a forward posture to ensure that the people of the Virgin Islands are taken care of," Barry added.

He spoke about the amount of responsibility to account for personnel this time around because of increased personnel at the Estate Bethlehem Military Compound.

"We also have an increased amount of [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and other civil agencies personnel bedding down with us," Barry said.

"We also are getting accountability of everybody,” he said, “making sure we know where they're sleeping, how they're posturing and taking care of them, so right after the disaster, we can push into the community and start relief efforts."

Earlier, Maria made landfall on the nearby island of Dominica as a Category 5 storm with 160 mph winds, causing widespread damage. The storm is heading along a path similar to the devastating Hurricane Irma.

Weather models predicted Puerto Rico would receive 20-25 inches of rain and 6 to 9 feet of storm surge, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Hurricane Maria preparation
Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel occupy the Joint Force Headquarters Drill Hall in preparation for Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 19, 2017. U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard personnel as well as military personnel from other states are bedding down at the Estate Bethlehem Military Compound in St. Croix in preparation for Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. U.S. Virgin Islands Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Juanita Philip
Hurricane Maria preparation VI preps for another Cat 5 storm
Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel occupy the Joint Force Headquarters Drill Hall in preparation for Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Sept. 19, 2017. U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard personnel as well as military personnel from other states are bedding down at the Estate Bethlehem Military Compound in St. Croix in preparation for Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. U.S. Virgin Islands Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Juanita Philip

"You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you're going to die," said Hector Pesquera, the island's public safety commissioner. "I don't know how to make this any clearer."

Communities in the U.S. Virgin Islands are still reeling from devastation caused by Hurricane Irma two weeks ago, creating a major concern for loose debris, which can become extremely dangerous projectiles. Residents on both islands quickly switched from recovery efforts back to preparations against impending flooding and disparaging winds. Puerto Rico reports about 63,500 people are still without power and another 200 are still in shelters on the island.

"This is going to impact all of Puerto Rico with a force and violence that we haven't seen for several generations," said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló Nevares. "We're going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico. We're going to have to rebuild."

Many people who sought shelter in Puerto Rico from harder-hit islands nearby are unfortunately seeking shelter once more.

President Donald J. Trump declared a state of emergency for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands Sept. 18. Air operations there have ceased and all airports have closed.

Relief Efforts

Aircraft and nonessential personnel are being relocated off the islands to posture for relief efforts once operations are able to resume. A number of personnel will remain behind to provide initial response. Two UH-60 Black Hawk medevac helicopters from the Kentucky Army National Guard and another four from the Tennessee Army National Guard operating out of St. Croix are sheltered in Puerto Rico.

About 430 Virgin Islands National Guardsmen are still called up and another 390 brought in from other states for support will shelter in place to help in first response. A select number of National Guardsmen on the ground via an Emergency Management Assistance Compact have been relocated to Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, for the time being.

The U.S. Virgin Islands welcomed a Joint Incident Site Communication Capability team from the New York National Guard Sept. 19. The team will assist in communications support for first responders and other government agencies after the storm. U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp signed mutual orders of understandings with Puerto Rico and New York for Military Police support.

Puerto Rico has slightly more than 500 guard members reporting for duty.

In preparation, the Puerto Rico National Guard is supporting the relocation of Virgin Islands residents. A barge was received in San Juan from New Jersey carrying a supply of water, cots and generators.

Overall, three Air National Guard C-130 Hercules transport aircraft are on standby at San Juan, Puerto Rico, for St. Thomas evacuation operations. A mobile kitchen trailer and 15 service members are set to deploy to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, post-landfall. Eleven pallets of food and water have also been arranged post landfall from Kentucky. St Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, is set to receive two Joint Incident Site Communications Capability systems; one each from the Maine National Guard and the New York National Guard.

More than 200 guard members have been called from multiple states to provide hurricane relief efforts to the U.S. Virgin Islands once air operations commence.

Barnett is with the 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment and reported from Arlington, Va.; Philip is with the 51st Public Affairs Detachment and reported from the U.S. Virgin Islands