Vol. LII No. 12
December 2017

Island cleanup ongoing following hurricanes

SULPHUR, Okla. - A recent assignment to assist a pair of islands recover from the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes provided a lesson in gratitude for one Chickasaw citizen.

Chickasaw National Recreation Area Superintendent Bill Wright responded to the Caribbean in the wake of the recent enormous hurricanes, Irma and Maria. The storms ripped through the area and left thousands without homes, power and basic necessities.

Arriving in Puerto Rico a few days after hurricane Maria slammed the area, Mr. Wright served as Deputy Incident Commander of a team tasked with stabilizing the six parks in the Caribbean.

Mr. Wright had at one time been stationed at Everglades National Park in Florida. He has experienced the wrath of several hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina in 2007. But the damage he had previously witnessed paled in comparison to the devastation caused by Irma and Maria.

“I have never seen anything quite like it,” Mr. Wright said, just days upon returning from a 21-day assignment.

“The amount of devastation, multiplied by the location and the inaccessibility of the area, just compounded the complexity of the work that had to be done,” he said.

Hurricane Maria took a major toll on Puerto Rico and other islands. The storm made landfall Sept. 20, just a few days after Hurricane Irma slammed into St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

A Category 5 hurricane, Irma hit the island head-on and devastated its five national parks.

Winds measured on the island topped 225 miles per hour.

About 70 percent of the 20-square-mile island is a part of the national park system.

Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, Virgin Islands National Park, and Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve all sustained significant and extensive damage.

“When we got there we realized pretty quickly that the work that needed to be done was in St. John,” Mr. Wright said. “The problem was they did not have the capacity to take us. Our team is about 30-40 people and there was no housing, no hotels, nothing that was operational.”

San Juan National Historic Park in Puerto Rico and other parks also sustained damage from the hurricane.

Due to the location, obtaining resources, such as heavy equipment, and personnel was challenging. Park crews who responded to the disaster hailed from national parks throughout the U.S., as well as one crew from Mexico.

The conditions were hot and humid. A generator powered the Puerto Rico headquarters building and island lodging would run a generator in the morning and three hours at night. Air conditioning was not an option.

The Human Toll

Mr. Wright also worked as a liaison officer for the management team, and helped fellow park staff find new homes, and new jobs, on the mainland. About 35 percent of the 50 park employees at St. John lost homes to the storm.

Some of the houses built to modern day codes withstood the storm – others did not.

All homes sustained roof damage.

Mr. Wright and his team worked to find parks on the mainland where more than a dozen employees will relocate for up to 30 months while the parks are being repaired.

While working at San Juan National Historic Site, Mr. Wright witnessed dozens of local park employees (resident Puerto Ricans) struggling, yet maintaining a spirit of determination.

“Some of the local employees live on the other side of the island,” he said. “Their normal commute time is 90 minutes one way.”

After the hurricane, the commute time for many more than doubled, because many roads were wiped out in the storm.

Gas was also rationed, which meant employees had to wake before dawn and wait in line to receive enough gas to make the trip, all before driving more than two hours to get to work on time.

The process was repeated the next day.

“Every one of them came to work every day,” Mr. Wright said. “Some of them were going home to no house. Their house was destroyed, so they were living in the shack that survived, and throwing a tarp over it just to keep their family dry.

“The tenacity and resilience of those folks was amazing. They came to work every day with a smile on their face. I never heard one of them complain – they always had a ‘good morning’ and a smile even if they didn’t speak English. It would just tug at your heart.”

Local park staff also dealt with the scarcity of food and drinking water in Puerto Rico.

Many of them lived in the areas of the island where the grocery stores were either destroyed or closed, and other grocery stores were sold out.

So, food was an issue.

National Parks of the Caribbean Superintendent Randy Lavasseur worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to feed the park workers during the day.

Under a large tent in the superintendent’s front yard, volunteers cooked breakfast and served lunch for about a month.

Ongoing Recovery

The island sites are, like the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, major tourist attractions.

The fort at San Juan was the focal point of the community. Restoring and reopening the parks are major steps to economic recovery for the islands.

Stabilization was still under way when Mr. Wright’s assignment ended. There is still much work to be done.

Clearing beaches of hazards, repairing damaged historic structures and recovering the 400-plus boats that sank or ran ashore are all part of the work list.

“That work is ongoing and will take a long time, he said.

“The whole point was to stabilize and turn it over to park staff. That’s the goal. We didn’t totally get there. When we left we made arrangements for another team to come behind us to continue to work in that direction.”

His first trip to the area was certainly an impactful one, both professionally and personally.

“I was glad I got to go. We made a difference.”