Aerial view of a building in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. Photo: AP / USA TODAY

By Rick Jervis
23 September 2017

TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico (USA TODAY) – People in this storm-torn town waded though muddy water, swept thick mud out of living rooms or drove through thigh-high water crossings in cars that sputtered, stalled, and started again.

Nearby, a  FEMA response team, with specialists from Indiana, California, Florida and other states, took notes or peered into an iPad GPS. The team was on a reconnaissance mission following Hurricane Maria and one of the first signs of the U.S. government's promised support in the disaster.

"You hear about the destruction, but honestly, until we get out here and see it firsthand, it's hard to frame it all up," said Mike Pruitt, of Indiana, of FEMA's Incident Support Command.  "It's absolutely devastating to see what they've lost."

FEMA teams were already in Puerto Rico earlier this month working on relief efforts following Hurricane Irma and sprung into reconnaissance and search-and-rescue missions as soon as Maria's winds died down. FEMA is widely known as the federal disaster recovery agency, but it's also involved in dispatching rescue teams and gathering intel in the first chaotic days of a disaster. […]

Many of the members worked recent storms such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida before asked to help in Puerto Rico, he said. It's been such a busy year for disasters that each of the 28 task force teams around the USA, which go into disaster areas to rescue people, have been tapped to help, something rarely done, Lee said.

"It's flushed the system," Lee said. "It's challenging." […]

Johanna Ortega, 41, a resident whose house took on 6 feet of water, said the convoy was the first sign of help they've seen since the floods. "Nothing's working, we don't hear from anyone," she said. "We feel abandoned."

Another response team, Virginia Task Force 1, led a convoy to Ponce, on the southern edge of the island Wednesday. With Maria's remnants still whipping at them, the convoy of six Jeep Wranglers trudged through flooded highways and damaged roads. The usual hour-and-a-half drive took five hours, said Rob Schoenberger of Fairfax County, Va., who led the mission.

Schoenberger, who rescued Houston flood victims during Harvey, said Puerto Rico's destruction is unique in how a lack of communication has gripped the entire island - and how the storm impacted essentially every corner of the U.S. territory.

"This disaster is as big as this island, end to end," he said. "There is no safe haven." [more]

FEMA teams try to get arms around Maria disaster in Puerto Rico

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