TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico — People in this storm-torn town waded though muddy water, swept thick mud out of living rooms or drove through thigh-high water crossings in cars that sputtered, stalled and started again.
Nearby, a FEMA response team, with specialists from Indiana, California, Florida and other states, took notes or peered into an iPad GPS. The team was on a reconnaissance mission following Hurricane Maria and one of the first signs of the U.S. government’s promised support in the disaster.
“You hear about the destruction, but honestly, until we get out here and see it firsthand, it’s hard to frame it all up,” said Mike Pruitt, of Indiana, of FEMA’s Incident Support Command. “It’s absolutely devastating to see what they’ve lost.”
FEMA teams were already in Puerto Rico earlier this month working on relief efforts following Hurricane Irma and sprung into reconnaissance and search-and-rescue missions as soon as Maria’s winds died down. FEMA is widely known as the federal disaster recovery agency, but it’s also involved in dispatching rescue teams and gathering intel in the first chaotic days of a disaster.
President Trump has declared Puerto Rico a major disaster and pledged the full support of the U.S. government.
On the second floor of a sprawling hotel in San Juan’s Isla Verde neighborhood, teams of FEMA officials and search-and-rescue teams from around the USA pecked at laptops or readied backpacks and equipment. The teams rode out Hurricane Maria’s fury in the nearby ballroom. Now, the area serves as the command center for federal responders.
The hotel houses 276 rescue personnel, including task forces from Virginia, Florida and California, which do the search and rescues, canine units from California and Missouri, and flight specialists, said Karl Lee, a FEMA Incident Support Team member.
Many of the members worked recent storms such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida before asked to help in Puerto Rico, he said. It’s been such a busy year for disasters that each of the 28 task force teams around the USA, which go into disaster areas to rescue people, have been tapped to help, something rarely done, Lee said.
“It’s flushed the system,” Lee said. “It’s challenging.”
On Friday and Saturday, FEMA teams fanned out across this flood-ravaged town in inflatable boats and high-water vehicles, searching for stranded residents. The Puerto Rican Emergency Management Agency has called Toa Baja, a coastal town 20 miles west of San Juan, one of the hardest-hit areas of the storm, with 2,000 displaced residents and at least eight drownings.
It was hit first by Maria’s monstrous winds then water from the overflowing Rio Plata and finally by water released from a nearby dam that was threatening to breach, local officials said.
Residents scrambled onto roofs as more than 9 feet of water pushed into some areas. People fled to makeshift shelters and have been sleeping in local schools and the bleachers of ballparks.
On Saturday, some residents waved or let out small cheers when they saw a convoy of FEMA teams, including Virginia and Florida task force teams, being driven in high-water vehicles by members of the Puerto Rican National Guard.
“Long live USA!” one shirtless man yelled.
Johanna Ortega, 41, a resident whose house took on 6 feet of water, said the convoy was the first sign of help they’ve seen since the floods. “Nothing’s working, we don’t hear from anyone,” she said. “We feel abandoned.”
Another response team, Virginia Task Force 1, led a convoy to Ponce, on the southern edge of the island Wednesday. With Maria’s remnants still whipping at them, the convoy of six Jeep Wranglers trudged through flooded highways and damaged roads. The usual hour-and-a-half drive took five hours, said Rob Schoenberger, of Fairfield, Va., who led the mission.
They were the first first-responders to emerge in the region following the storm. The local state police unit was so happy to see them they escorted them into town and showed them where to refill their gas tanks, he said.
Though roofs had blown off and trees and debris littered the street, overall Ponce fared well from the storm, Schoenberger said. There were no reports of mass casualty or signs of widespread destruction.
Schoenberger, who rescued Houston flood victims during Harvey, said Puerto Rico’s destruction is unique in how a lack of communication has gripped the entire island – and how the storm impacted essentially every corner of the U.S. territory.
“This disaster is as big as this island, end to end,” he said. “There is no safe haven.”