In Storm-Staggered Puerto Rico, New York's Finest and Bravest Roll Up Their Sleeves

Daily Beast - September 30, 2017


A mountain town known for a long-ago day of bloody division on Monday added a day of perfect unity.

The devastation extended in all directions as the 27 cops and firefighters of New York Task Force 1 of Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) set out this week to do what they could in post-hurricane Puerto Rico.

“This place really took a hit,” FDNY Captain Liam Flaherty told The Daily Beast. “It looks like it’s going to take a while to come back.”

But the damage made the spirit of the people they encountered seem only more remarkable. “Smiling and waving,” Flaherty reported. “They’re in some really rough conditions, but it seems like their spirits are up. They’re very resilient.”

New York Task Force 1 is one of 28 USAR teams from jurisdictions across the country that work under FEMA responding to calamities. The New York team’s leader is NYPD Lt. Mike McGuinness. Flaherty is the deputy. They and the 25 other New Yorkers joined up with the Puerto Rican USAR team on Tuesday and started by repairing a generator at a hospital in Dorado.

Firefighter Bobby Ryan of Rescue 3 in the Bronx bled air from a line and reset a breaker and flipped a switch and the generator roared to life. He then set about repairing the water pump.

The New York and Puerto Rico USAR teams continued on to repair a generator at a hospital in the mountain town of Utuado. The job there proved more of a challenge, but Ryan proved to be all the more a Mr. Fix-it when he used a suction machine from the emergency room to clear out the generator. It, too, roared to life.

“People were jumping for joy,” Flaherty said.

The joined teams proceeded to where a collapsed bridge in Utuado had left 200 people stranded without food or water. Both teams had trained long and hard for just such a situation.

Back in the 19th century, the area around Utuado was Puerto Rico’s biggest producer of “black gold,” as coffee was called. The United States then took over the island in 1898 and made sugar the main crop. The struggling coffee plantations suffered double ill fortune the following year, when they were ravaged by Hurricane San Ciriaco, which killed more than 3,300 people island-wide.

Utuado slipped from prominence until October of 1950, when it became one of several towns where small bands of independentistas revolted against U.S. rule. The independentistas in Utuado battled the local police before seeking refuge in a house.

The authorities ended up calling in an airstrike by 10 P-47 Thunderbolt planes. A number of the survivors were later taken behind the police station and machine gunned in what was called “The Utuado Massacre.”

To that moment of bloody division in the history of Utuado was now added a day of perfect unity in September of 2017. New York USAR cops and firefighters joined their Puerto Rican counterparts in stretching lines across the storm swollen Vivi River.

The two teams were America at its greatest as they then began helping people across. You have to wonder why politics needs to be so much more complicated and so much less noble than simply helping people in need.

But unlike a USAR team, politicians are knee-knockingly averse to risk and insatiably hungry for personal gain. The cops and firefighters are ever ready to risk all and the only reward they seek in racing from home to a disaster area is the knowledge that they have helped others.

“If something’s up, we want to be there,” Flaherty said.

As night fell, the New York team returned to its command post. The Puerto Rico team asked for the New Yorkers to join it on Wednesday in clearing a road in Las Marias.

They then headed for Ponce, where they made wellness checks at addresses where there was concern somebody might be in distress. They continued to get a spirited response wherever they went in the devastation.

“A lot of thank yous and smiles and waves,” Flaherty said. “The people are pretty tough.” On Wednesday night, the New York team again returned to the command post. They expected to be back out on Thursday with their Puerto Rican partners.

“Like a Swiss Army knife, taking care of whatever needs to be done,” Flaherty said.