People didn’t expect Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) to be an innovator in a disaster, yet that is exactly what happened during the Hurricane Maria response.
“Anytime, anywhere,” probably doesn’t mean much for most people, but for the more than 6,000 employees of Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Department of Homeland Security, it is a promise to help no matter the circumstances.
When FEMA activated thousands of federal responders, 268 members of 17 investigation teams from 14 cities answered. Initially, these teams were slated to provide security at landing zones so helicopters could land safely in isolated, hard-to-reach areas. The early arrivals paved the way for future teams by broadening their mission at the disaster.
“After listening to survivors’ needs, we formulated a plan in conjunction with FEMA and Puerto Rico Urban Search and
Rescue to ensure the safe and proper distribution of commodities in the isolated mountainous areas,” said New Orleans Tactical Supervisor Kevin Andries. “The teams conducted medical assessments and situational reports of all the cities and barrios that we encountered, including reconnaissance on roads and bridges. We provided this information to FEMA daily so they could better coordinate the proper resources for every impacted area.”
As teams continued to arrive, the mission further expanded. Teams distributed water filters, tarps and critical infant and toddler supplies to rural areas that had no access.
“When larger trucks couldn’t make it to an area due to road conditions, they loaded their four-wheel drive vehicles with diapers, baby food and other supplies to make sure the survivors got what they needed as fast as possible,” said FEMA employee Lauralee Koziol. “Their dedication to the survivors and efficient way of working made it possible for us to get these items where they were most needed.”
The teams performed wellness checks, and if needed, delivered and hooked-up oxygen tanks. When they found a survivor in critical condition and the nearest ambulance was unable to make the journey, medics on the Denver team quickly and safely transported her to the nearest functioning medical facility, so she could receive immediate medical care.
As time passed, Homeland Security Investigations partnered with U.S. Public Health Services to increase the rural population’s access to medical professionals.
“They offered to provide personnel to go on our missions to the center of the island,” said Chicago Team Lead Ben Gatrost. “As we found survivors in life threatening conditions, we worked together to reach, treat, stabilize and transport those individuals to care facilities.”
As the response efforts continued, Homeland Security Investigations staff shifted their focus to gathering and sharing information on infrastructure conditions. Identifying which roads had mudslides and which bridges could no longer safely support a box truck loaded with supplies allowed FEMA and the military to use resources more efficiently. Additionally, they inspected the functionality of hundreds of generators powering water systems to expedite the return of water service to communities.
All of this extraordinary field work done by teams from Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, El Paso, Houston, Miami, Tampa, Los Angeles, Newark, New Orleans, New York, Phoenix and San Juan was made possible by the coordination of the Homeland Security Investigations Office of Special Agent in Charge, San Juan, Puerto Rico. The hard work, ingenuity and perseverance of these special agents in the field allowed more survivors to receive life-saving and life-sustaining supplies faster.