On Saturday, September 9 I received an email from my daughter, Rachelle, notifying me that a friend of hers had not heard from his mother since Hurricane Irma hit the island of St. Thomas where she lives next to her sister. When I received the email, we knew that St. Thomas received extensive damage with very little communication capability. I also did not know where I would be assigned. I kept the email in my pocket and was prepared to forward it to whoever was assigned the responsibility of conducting welfare checks in her neighborhood.
What I did not tell my daughter was that the last time I was asked–by someone I knew personally–to check on family members, the outcome did not turn out well, and I had to inform the family what we discovered.
As things turned out, I was assigned as the Division/Group Supervisor responsible for St. Thomas on Sunday, September 10.
After we arrived on St. Thomas, we established a base of operation, logistical support capability, communications, and on-boarding of team members from the Incident Support Team, Virginia Task Force 1 (VA-TF1), Missouri Task Force 1 with canines (MO-TF1), and U.S. Forest Service Force Protection personnel.
On Monday, September 11, we were able to receive the remaining team members from Puerto Rico, conduct an air recon mission, complete the setup of our base of operations, and establish our plan for the next day–what we call an Operational Incident Plan.
On Tuesday, September 12, we initiated the plan at 0700. Our first priority was to access to the areas on the island that had not been accessible up to this point and conduct recon, rapid/hasty search, primary search, and if time allowed, finish with a targeted search of the list of welfare checks we compiled from multiple sources, including my daughter’s.
I gave a copy of my daughter’s request to one of our team members, Jim Colston, who was responsible for vetting of all reported welfare checks. After the list was verified, VA-TF1 Operations placed them on the list to be assigned to squads when they became available.
There were three teams in theater (which is what we call the area where we’re working) – all doing an outstanding job at accessing parts of the island that had zero contact with anyone since the hurricane.
At approximately 1300 hours (or 1PM), VA-TF 1 personnel had rescued a 90-year-old woman who was dehydrated and in septic shock. She had been confined to her bed since the hurricane.
The teams were making better than expected progress, so we decided to assign the welfare checks to the teams as they finished their assigned search and rescue missions. At this time, I requested to accompany the squads that had my daughter’s welfare check request. I was accompanied by VA-TF1 Task Force Leader Michael Schaff. Michael was the only person who knew of my connection to this person. As it turned out, Rachelle’s request was the last targeted search of the day.
You always hope for the best, but when you see the devastation that covered the island, I needed to be prepared for the potential negative outcome. As we entered the neighborhood, we discovered the homes were in good condition with minor damage. We found Rachelle’s friend’s aunt who was alive and well. She then walked us to her sister’s house.
When I knocked on the door I was greeted by the person we were looking for. She was alive and well, and very surprised. When I told her who I was, and my connection to her son in Los Angeles, she got a little overwhelmed.
I walked her down the steps to have her meet the crew. When she stopped to look at our Rescue Squad, lined up, happy to see her, she asked me: “Is all of this for me?” I just smiled and informed her that this was one of many United States FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams that were working to take care of people affected by Hurricane Irma.
When we got to the bottom of the stairs, we had a satellite phone ready, and called her son. We got her son on the phone and handed it to his mom—to hear her first words to her son will forever be with all of us, for the rest of time: “Tiger, it’s Mom.”
I am extremely proud of the hundreds of people we assisted in so many ways. Our teams throughout this entire deployment brought a sense of relief to a great number of people. On this particular mission, it was extra special to report to my daughter that her friend’s mom and aunt were OK. Her original email remains in my pocket, and will stay there until I see her again to deliver it personally, with my field notes stating mission completed.