Aid from above: 62nd brings relief in Irma aftermath

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Whitney Taylor
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Hurricane Irma was one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in decades, tearing its way across the Caribbean earlier this month as a Category 5 hurricane and decimating much in its path.

In the brief respite between Hurricanes Irma and Jose, members of the 62nd Airlift Wing were able to partner with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deliver much-needed supplies to San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Friday [September 8] at approximately 2:15 a.m., we received the phone call that they were going to use us,” said Lt. Col. Brandon Tellez, 62nd Operations Support Squadron director of operations. “We boarded the jet for our initial mission, which was to head to Westover, Massachusetts, to pick up FEMA supplies, but about 90 minutes prior to arrival, the Tactical Air Control Center diverted us to Oceana, Virginia.”

As situations continued to develop across the Caribbean and personnel and cargo remained in a state of flux, the relief team adapted to the fluidity of their unique mission.

“We had a really flexible team,” Tellez said. “The five of us executed the mission as expertly as we possibly could with all the changes. We diverted to Oceana because there were personnel ready to go right away, and aid was needed right away.”

According to Puerto Rican officials, Hurricane Irma killed at least three people, left millions without power and more than 50,000 without potable water.

“We carried 50 FEMA personnel who were a mix of urban search and rescue and medical folks to respond to Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico,” said Senior Airman Zachariah Eye, 7th Airlift Squadron aircraft loadmaster.

Once that mission was complete, the crew was given a turn-around tasking.

“We took that group of 50 and all of their supplies down to San Juan,” Tellez said. “We dropped them off and headed to Westover, which had been our original destination.”

Upon arrival, loadmasters learned they would be dealing with drastically different cargo than they had in support of Puerto Rico relief.

“We had a diesel tanker truck, portable generator attached to a pickup truck, and a FEMA box truck,” Eye said. “Most of the cargo we carry is already designed for airlift – roll on, roll off. You don’t have to do anything special with the ramp. However, because these were commercial vehicles, they were not designed for airlift.

“We had to use some ramps and other techniques to load the cargo on the aircraft without damaging either the vehicles or the aircraft. It wasn’t quite as easy as the previous upload of personnel and pallets, but we made it work.”

Like the delivery before, this load was initially earmarked for Puerto Rico, but was diverted to St. Thomas during the upload process. Once again, the crew took the changes in stride.

“We got all our ducks in a row and adapted to our new mission,” Tellez said. “We arrived as the first C-17 Globemaster III into St. Thomas with FEMA supplies and found that airfield completely devastated. The runway was clear and the ramp was clear, but you could see the roofing material from the top of the terminal had all blown over and been pushed to the side. There were aircraft flipped over, upside down and in ditches. The windows were blown out and there was sea life washed inside the terminals after the flooding.”

Though Tellez had involvement in earthquake relief after Haiti was devastated in 2010, he described his most recent relief-bringing effort as particularly fulfilling.

“It was very rewarding,” Tellez said. “When we headed to St. Thomas and San Juan, it was after Hurricane Irma, but before Hurricane Jose. We were splitting two hurricanes just to get the FEMA supplies where they needed to be. You can’t truck vehicles across the ocean into these islands, so the only source of immediate help is through airlift. That’s what we were able to provide the cause.”

A first-time experience for Eye, the minute-to-minute nature of the aid mission left a lasting impression.

“It’s definitely the most dynamic environment I’ve ever been in during a mission,” Eye said. “Usually when we leave, it’s pretty much set in stone that we’re going to go here, then here, and doing this; on this mission we just had to be flexible – press with what you know, but be ready to change. It was a different and rewarding experience and I’m glad I was a part of it.”

As the Atlantic continues to hurl storm after storm at the Caribbean and parts of the mainland United States, Tellez had these words of assurance to offer:

“I think I speak for all of the operations community when I say, this is what we want to be doing; this is what we love to do – helping out and making a difference.”