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Facing the Challenge of Maria

Hurricane Maria
Facing the Challenge of Maria
CBP’S unprecedented hurricane recovery efforts
By Marcy Mason

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Black Hawk helicopter braves Hurricane Maria’s aftermath to deliver lifesaving supplies to Puerto Rico. Photo by Ozzy Trevino

 

After Hurricane Maria, the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico’s history, pummeled the U.S. territory last September, it left a path of crippling destruction in its wake. The magnitude of damage to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was so devastating that it wiped out the entire electrical grid, plunging the Caribbean island into darkness. The catastrophic aftermath of the storm—flooding, mudslides, collapsed bridges, downed trees, communication towers that had been knocked out—and the struggles endured by the people who live in Puerto Rico are, by now, widely known. U.S. Customs and Border Protection had never faced a natural disaster quite so challenging. But using its resources and ingenuity, the agency created an unprecedented supply chain that helped Puerto Rico during the initial weeks of its recovery.

By the time Hurricane Maria unleashed its fury on Puerto Rico, striking the island on Sept. 20, with 155-mile per hour winds, CBP had already, only weeks before, responded to two other catastrophic storms that season. But Maria was much more challenging because the Category 4 hurricane hit an island more than a thousand miles away from the U.S. mainland.

"It’s not like when a hurricane hits the continental United States, where once the storm passes, you can drive relief supplies, personnel, and other resources into the impacted area. On an island, everything has to be shipped in," said Vernon Foret, CBP’s Caribbean area commander who oversaw the agency’s emergency response efforts in the region.

But it was much more than that. There were a myriad of other logistical challenges created by the storm. "Normally in preparation for a major storm such as a hurricane, we pre-position aircraft and people so we can get into place to conduct rescue and recovery operations," said Eric Rembold, the executive director of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations for the Southeast region. "But Puerto Rico is an island a thousand miles away and we couldn’t do that. We were busy taking our aircraft and people off the island for protection. Typically, we would be there within hours, as soon as the storm passes and the winds die down, but, in this case, we really couldn’t do that until about 30 hours after the storm," said Rembold.

 

Recovery operation

The storm had barely cleared the northwest coast of the island and CBP’s aircraft were already flying in. At first, CBP’s Air and Marine Operations surveyed critical infrastructure such as dams, bridges, major roads and hospitals. "We start by making assessments to see just how bad the storm is, to understand the magnitude of the devastation, and then determine what resources are needed," said Rembold. "We stream live video to different command centers throughout the country—our own and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s."

After that, CBP’s focus became a recovery operation. "We were trying to find out the wellbeing of our employees," said Rembold. But communication became extremely difficult because the cell towers and landlines were down, and there was no electricity across the island, so trying to reach the employees for 100 percent accountability became extremely challenging."

Making the situation worse, the roads were impassable. Fallen trees, debris, downed power lines, large pot holes, mudslides and collapsed bridges were all obstacles that vehicles needed to maneuver. "Driving on the roads to find our people was not an option at first," said Rembold. "It was too hazardous." Instead, CBP used Black Hawk helicopters to search for employees on the island. "Every day we would gather a list from our lead field coordinator in Miami and send it down to our agents in Puerto Rico. ‘This is the list. We need you to check these 10 people today,’" Rembold added.

The agents began searching the island to account for the nearly 700 CBP employees who worked in Puerto Rico. The teams would fly from CBP’s Caribbean Air and Marine Branch in Aguadilla, on the west side of the island. "We’d fly to a town, land, and start walking around, looking for CBP employees. We’d literally walk up to people and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for these three people. Do you know them?’ Invariably they knew one or two of them and where they lived," said Jeffrey Birks, a CBP supervisory air interdiction agent and critical care flight paramedic.

While they were there, the agents tried to help the local townspeople. "These people were completely isolated, so we had to do something to help them stay in contact with the outside world," said Birks. He copied down names and telephone numbers to call relatives in the U.S. on a satellite phone when he returned to CBP’s air branch. "I probably made 40-50 calls. ‘I saw your nephew, niece, aunt, uncle, grandparents. They’re alive and well and their house is standing. They don’t have any telephone service, so they can’t call you, but they wanted you to know that they are okay.’"

Food and water were also scarce as well as other supplies. "It was very hard for us. You couldn’t find water or food anywhere. Everything was closed," said Ramiro Cerrillo, CBP’s incident commander responsible for relief and recovery efforts on the west side of the island.

The San Juan airport was also shut down. Five days after the storm, it reopened—but just barely. The airport had been badly damaged during the hurricane and was running on generators. In fact, almost everything on the island was running on generators.

Gregory Haynes, CBP air interdiction agent, loads bottled water at the agency’s Caribbean Air and Marine Branch in Aguadilla, on the west side of the island. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
Hurricane Maria

Innovative response

All of this was a major concern for Diane Sabatino, the director of field operations for Miami and Tampa, who was designated by CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan as the lead field coordinator for the Southeast region including the Caribbean. Sabatino was responsible for coordinating the agency’s relief and recovery efforts to make sure CBP’s personnel were accounted for, safe, and for the short-term, help them adjust to as normal a life as possible.

Although CBP had a long history of responding to destructive hurricanes, including most recently Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the circumstances in Puerto Rico were unlike anything the agency had ever encountered. Sabatino and her team had to act quickly and find a way to deliver food, water, and other supplies to the CBP employees who desperately needed them a thousand miles away.

After reaching out to an emergency operations team at headquarters, Sabatino decided to create a supply chain using CBP assets—aircraft, vessels, personnel, and the agency’s expertise on how a supply chain works. "We’re very unique as an agency that we have the set of skills to do this," said Sabatino. "We manage and enforce regulations on supply chains every day and we see how they operate. We deal with international importers, exporters, and shippers on a daily basis. Only now, we were standing up our own supply chain. We essentially became the importers, the shippers, and the distributors in Puerto Rico."

Countless decisions needed to be made. None of them were easy. Sabatino and her team calculated consumption rates to know how much food and water to send. They also found ways locally and through CBP headquarters to procure the supplies with a depleted, end-of–fiscal-year budget.

"We took everything that we had prepared for the entire hurricane season and shifted it to Puerto Rico," said Eduardo Alvarez, the emergency preparedness coordinator for CBP’s Miami Field Office. "Typically, we would try to save some supplies, because the season wasn’t over. We could have a storm next week, but this was massive. Everything we had was sent and we used every available purchase capability locally."

Getting the supplies to Puerto Rico quickly was also critical. "It takes three to four hours to send supplies to Puerto Rico by plane," said Sabatino. "By barge or ship, it takes a minimum of four days, and that’s if the sailing conditions are good." As a consequence, food, water, diapers, hygiene products, and other items that were needed immediately were sent by air. Supplies such as portable toilets, showers, washing machines, dryers, and generators that contained fuel were sent by vessel.

CBP set up two transit points. Supplies sent by air were flown out of Homestead, Florida, where CBP’s Miami Air and Marine Branch is located. Anything shipped by sea was loaded onto barges at the port of Jacksonville. The quantity of supplies was enormous. "We had so many supplies going into our hangar at Homestead, we didn’t have room for our aircraft," said Rembold, who explained that the problem was alleviated after CBP was allowed to use a nearby military hangar. "It’s a huge hangar, so we were able to store our supplies there and use our hangar for our aircraft," he said.

 

Hurricane Maria

During recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria, CBP overcame enormous logistical challenges posed by Puerto Rico’s distance, a thousand miles from the U.S. mainland. Image by Google Earth

 

The supplies were transported on CBP’s P-3 and DHC-8 aircraft. "Under normal circumstances, these small, maritime patrol planes are used for surveillance," said Rembold. But within a matter of hours, the aircraft were converted to haul cargo. "That’s something we have never done before in our history," said Rembold. "But there was no other way we could get these lifesaving supplies over to the island as quickly as we did."

Finding fuel was another challenge. "Here in the islands, when we have this type of disaster, it’s very difficult to get fuel," said Rubén Cruz-Lugo, acting assistant director of mission support at CBP’s San Juan Field Office. "So knowing this, a few years back, as part of the CBP emergency preparedness program, we gave a letter to one of our vendors, stating that for national security purposes, our systems needed diesel fuel for the essential functions we do during an emergency."

The letter worked. When the fuel distributors in Puerto Rico read the letter, CBP was given the same priority as other mission essential functions of the government. "We had fuel the day after Hurricane Maria hit," said Cruz-Lugo. "Without that letter, it would have taken us weeks or even months to find a contractor with a tanker who would have been willing to supply us with fuel."

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jesse Serio, left, offers his satellite phone to a resident of Caban, Puerto Rico, to contact his family in the continental U.S. to let them know he survived the storm. Photo by Mani Albrecht
Hurricane Maria

All accounted for

After nearly four days, CBP achieved 100 percent accountability for the agency’s employees and staff. "Usually we can account for people within hours," said Rembold.

Accounting for CBP’s employees and making sure that they and their families are taken care of is critical for the island’s recovery. "Our employees have to be at work to make sure that trade starts to come back as soon as possible after a storm like this happens," said Foret. "If we’re not there to make sure that the goods coming in are facilitated to get them as quickly as possible on store shelves, the people who are impacted aren’t only CBP employees, it’s anybody who relies on things coming through the port. This includes basic necessities—food, water, fuel, communication equipment, and construction materials that are needed after a devastating hurricane."

But CBP’s mission extends beyond that. "Our job is twofold. We facilitate legitimate travel and trade, but we also have an enforcement and antiterrorism mission, and there are people who are going to exploit this type of situation for nefarious means," said Foret. "Our employees are the frontline and need to be out there to ensure that we’re detecting and deterring criminal activity from happening— whether it’s illegal aliens or the flow of narcotics coming into the area. Everything we do on a daily basis we still need to do in the aftermath of a hurricane, and our employees need to be there to get that done."

CBP employees throughout the agency were worried about their families in Puerto Rico. "Once the storm passed, our employees were trying to communicate with their families, but couldn’t, so they started to ask us for help," said Alvarez at the emergency coordination center in Miami. Hundreds of requests poured in asking CBP to check on the welfare of family members on the island. "The emails became overwhelming for our staff," said Alvarez. "So we modified our intranet site so that it could be accessed across the agency. If someone wanted to request assistance for his or her family in Puerto Rico, he or she could do so through the intranet site." After the new site opened on Sept. 23, the agency received more than 1,500 requests for wellness checks on family members in Puerto Rico.

"We were notified daily from headquarters about different people to do wellness checks on in the area," said Cerrillo. "They weren’t necessarily immediate family members. A lot of them were distant relatives."

A CBP medical team assists a local paramedic in lifting a patient into an ambulance. While conducting a wellness check on a CBP employee’s relative in a remote mountain town in Puerto Rico, the CBP team saved the woman’s life. Photo by Harry Fraticelli
Hurricane Maria

Wellness checks

Such was the case for Sharon Brown, a CBP contracting officer in Washington, D.C., who volunteered to help with the agency’s hurricane procurement efforts in the Emergency Operations Center at headquarters. Brown had several cousins in Puerto Rico that none of her relatives in the U.S. had heard from after the hurricane. "I added their names and addresses to the list on the intranet site to see if someone could check on them," said Brown.

A CBP medical team, comprised of a paramedic, an emergency medical technician, and a CBP officer who served as an interpreter, drove an hour and half to a small, remote village in the mountains southwest of San Juan to check on Brown’s cousins. "The roads were not impassable, but they were treacherous at times," said Ryan Ziliak, a CBP officer and emergency medical technician from Pembina, North Dakota, who volunteered to assist with CBP’s relief effort in Puerto Rico.

The CBP team knew very little about Brown’s cousins. "All we were told was the family needed food, water, and oxygen," said Ziliak. When the team arrived at the family’s home, they discovered that one of Brown’s cousins, Iris Zayas, was in a coma and hooked up to a ventilator to assist her breathing. "She only had about 20 percent oxygen left in the main cylinder," said Geoff Smith, a CBP paramedic based in Sterling, Virginia. "The family told us that the warehouse that belonged to the hospice facility that supplied them with oxygen was destroyed and there wasn’t any way to refill the tank."

It became apparent that Brown’s cousin needed medical care at a hospital. But the family thought the local hospital was overwhelmed from the hurricane and too busy with other patients. The CBP team decided to drive over to the hospital to see if the medical staff would help Mrs. Zayas. "We had a conversation with the director of nursing and his supervisory staff," said Smith. "We explained the situation and briefed them on Mrs. Zayas’ medical condition and they said, ‘Okay, you can bring her in and we’ll take care of her.’"

At that point, the CBP medical team needed to find an ambulance to transport Mrs. Zayas. They went to the local fire department and found an ambulance and paramedics who were willing to help. "We followed the ambulance back to the house, helped them load the patient, and then we transported her to the hospital. We also made sure that the Zayas family had plenty of food and water," said Ziliak.

When Brown heard about her cousin, she was relieved and grateful. "CBP saved her life," said Brown. "We didn’t know that there was such a dire need. If it weren’t for CBP’s intervention, we would never have known that her health was so precarious."

 

Hurricane Maria Hurricane Maria
Responding to a plea for help, a CBP Air and Marine Operations team conducted medical checks on two families stranded in a remote area of Puerto Rico. Photo by Kris Grogan Jeffrey Birks, a supervisory air interdiction agent and critical care flight paramedic, left, treats one of the ailing family members. Photo by Kris Grogan

 

Helping the community

CBP’s help extended beyond its employees. "We never said, ‘No,’ to anyone who asked for help," said Smith. "If anyone in a community asked us for a case of water or to evaluate them medically, the answer was always, ‘Yes.’ Every time we evaluated one patient, it turned into about 80 evaluations because we wanted to do whatever we could."

In one instance, when Smith and Ziliak were en route to help clear debris at a children’s playground, they saw an overturned car on the other side of the highway and stopped. "I grabbed our medical gear and we ran over to the car," said Ziliak. The driver had been pulled out by a group of bystanders and was sitting in another vehicle in front of it. "Geoff and I assessed her medically. She was complaining of back pain, rib pain, and dizziness." The CBP medical team calmed the woman. Her pulse rate came down and her dizziness went away. "Once we finished the assessment, I held her neck just in case there were any back injuries. Then we waited until an ambulance came," said Ziliak.

Sometimes CBP saw distress signals from the air. "While we were flying from town to town looking for our people to account for them, we saw a house with the word, ‘HELP’ written on the roof," said Birks. "A small group of people were standing outside the house, waving their hands at the helicopter. Our pilot circled back and we thought, ‘Oh, we better go check.’"

The helicopter landed in a clearing on a mountain top. A mudslide had completely washed away the road leading to the house. "We had to hike about a half mile through the woods, climbing over fallen trees and there was mud everywhere," said Birks.

When the CBP Air and Marine agents arrived at the house, they found two families gathered together. Birks, a paramedic, did a medical check on the 74-year-old man who they had been worried about. "They thought he was having a diabetic emergency," said Birks. "He was out chopping trees to try to clear the road and he came back feeling horrible. He was malnourished, poorly hydrated, and had not taken his medicine, so we saw to it that he took his medicine and gave him some food and water, which improved his medical condition and made him feel better."

Then Birks checked the health of four other people at the house. "It turned out he was the healthiest of the five patients I saw," said Birks. "I checked their blood sugar levels, vital signs, and made sure they were taking their medicines and had enough food and water, too."

In some instances, CBP reached out to the community. As an adoptive parent, Cruz-Lugo was aware of a number of shelters in Puerto Rico where the government places orphan children and children who come from abusive homes. "Knowing the government of Puerto Rico had limited resources, we thought we might be able to help others in the community," said Cruz-Lugo.

 

Hurricane Maria

CBP brought water, food, and other supplies to orphanages and shelters throughout the island. Above, Rubén Cruz-Lugo distributes bottled water to children at an orphanage in the Puerto Rican countryside. Photo by Pedro Ramos

 

So CBP’s San Juan Field Office reached out to an orphan home near the San Juan Custom House to find out if they needed food or water. "We were told that their home was okay, but there were many other orphan homes throughout the island," Cruz-Lugo said.

Among them was Hogar Cuna San Cristóbal, a shelter for children located in the countryside near Caguas, a city south of San Juan. When CBP arrived 10 days after the hurricane with a truckload of supplies, the orphanage still had no electricity and was in urgent need of water. "It was a critical moment for us. No stores were open and we didn’t have water," said Ivonne Vélez, the executive director of the home.

Fourteen children, ages 1-7, lived at the shelter, and Vélez was worried. "I couldn’t sleep at night. In my mind, I kept asking myself, ‘What am I going to do?’ Because if we don’t have food or water, we might have to close the home," said Vélez. And then, much to Vélez’s surprise, CBP arrived with water, food, and other supplies. "It was an answer to a prayer," she said. "Help came at the moment that we needed it the most, and in the most surprising way."

As part of its assistance efforts in Puerto Rico, CBP brought water, food, and other supplies to nearly 700 people at 10 orphanages, one shelter for adults and children, and a monastery that serves an entire community.

 

Busy supply chain

The flights to Puerto Rico started out slow the first couple of days, but then ramped up. "Once we started the supply chain, we were doing five to seven flights per day," said Rembold. "Anytime we flew from the U.S. to Puerto Rico we filled the aircraft from floor to ceiling with cargo—food, water, supplies, and first responders. We not only took CBP teams, but Homeland Security Investigation teams, and a lot of first responders from other federal agencies."

Within a few days, the return flights were filled with evacuees. "We realized we were flying back with empty airplanes and there were a lot of people on the island who wanted to evacuate," said Sabatino. Most of the passengers were CBP employees and their relatives. For many, it was the only way to leave the island.

Such was the case for Daisy Francisco, who was visiting her parents and sisters in Puerto Rico. Francisco had originally planned to fly home to New Jersey on Sept. 20, the day Hurricane Maria made landfall. She saw the storm was coming and tried to get an earlier flight, but they were all booked. "It was a nightmare," said Francisco. After the storm, she was stranded. "My husband booked me on three different flights and each one kept getting canceled. I felt like this is never going to happen. I’m never going to get out."

Then Francisco’s brother-in-law, a Border Patrol agent, told her that there was a possibility that she could get on one of the CBP flights that was leaving from Aguadilla. Francisco realized that she could not leave without her parents, who were in their 80s. "My mother would not fare well because she’s on high blood pressure medicine, diabetes medicine, and she was already hospitalized earlier this year with a really bad case of bronchitis. My fear was if my parents got sick, they wouldn’t be able to get any help because they live deep in the countryside," said Francisco.

The next day, Francisco, her parents, and one of her sisters were able to get on a flight, which landed in Homestead. "Every Border Patrol agent that we encountered throughout our trip was extremely kind and generous. They exemplify all that is good in humankind," said Francisco. "If it weren’t for them, I don’t think my parents would be here now at this stage—five weeks later. I know people who have been trying to get off the island and can’t."

 

As part of its relief efforts, CBP evacuated agency employees and their relatives from Puerto Rico. Above, CBP assists as Department of Homeland Security employees and relatives board a plane in San Juan headed to Florida. Photo by Ozzy Trevino
Hurricane Maria

Bigger planes

After about a week, CBP realized that the supply chain would be much more effective using larger planes. "We had all of these supplies that were starting to amass in Homestead and there was just no way that we could get them on our aircraft in a reasonable amount of time," said Rembold. Most of the supplies came on pallets that could be driven onto cargo planes with a forklift. But with CBP’s small P-3s and DHC-8s, the seats needed to be removed and supplies had to be hand loaded onto the planes. "It was very time consuming," said Rembold.

CBP’s first thought was to ask the U.S. Coast Guard if it could borrow cargo planes. The Coast Guard agreed, but only for a day. "They had their own life sustaining operations," said Rembold. But the cargo aircraft worked well, so CBP decided to charter larger planes.

Finding the money to procure the aircraft wasn’t easy. "We realized it was going to be a challenge because we were getting ready to close out the fiscal year," said Dario Lugo, CBP’s Emergency Operations Center manager in Washington, D.C. "But the component offices within CBP came through. They pooled their remaining money and we chartered aircraft for 18 flights, 12 for cargo and six to evacuate CBP personnel, their families and others who were impacted by the storm."

Not only could CBP ship more supplies with fewer flights, leasing planes made fiscal sense too. "It would have taken our aircraft at least three days to move the equivalent of one charter flight," said Lugo. "It also freed up our aircraft to perform other life safety missions and return to their normal function of protecting the borders."

CBP also provided employees with other kinds of support. "We knew that employees were going through a lot after the hurricane and it could have been overwhelming for them. They were being asked to provide comfort to other people when they were going through the same devastating experience," said Cerillo. "We wanted to make sure we had healthy employees, not just physically, but mentally, so we had people who came in to provide peer support."

Supervisory Air Interdiction Agent Jeffrey Birks, foreground, and a Miami Air and Marine Operations crew deliver humanitarian supplies to Castañer, Puerto Rico, a rural mountain town in the western part of the island. Photo by Rob Brisley
Hurricane Maria

Supporting FEMA

In addition to these efforts, CBP assisted FEMA. Three days after the storm passed, CBP aircraft began supplementing the Federal Aviation Administration’s radar, which is part of FEMA’s infrastructure recovery mission. "All the FAA radar on the island had been decimated," said Rembold. "When the San Juan Airport reopened its passenger operations to the airlines, it needed a type of radar separation because the U.S. Department of Defense was bringing more and more aircraft into the environment. Our aircraft played a very vital role in keeping that radar separation intact."

On the west side of the island, CBP collaborated with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army, and the U.S. Marine Corps to assist FEMA with the distribution of food and water. "The local municipalities would request areas of distribution and FEMA would give us direction," said Cerrillo. "If there were any distribution points where the roads were inaccessible, we would take on that challenge."

CBP also was asked to fly a congressional delegation to some of the remote areas of the island. The delegation, which was led by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan, included Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the three-star officer who led the U.S. military’s emergency response in Puerto Rico; and U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft. "The devastation was of such a magnitude that they requested our help to be able to get up close to see the different sites throughout the island," said Rembold. "We took the delegation to some of the remote areas in Puerto Rico, many of the places where we delivered food and supplies."

Similarly, CBP flew reporters from the Weather Channel and other news outlets throughout the island, but broadcasting conditions were difficult. "There was no power until five days after the storm passage," said Rembold. "It wasn’t even possible to get on the island via commercial means, and with the collapsed infrastructure the media couldn’t broadcast out. It appeared that nothing was happening to help Puerto Rico, but we knew differently."

Within days after the storm, CBP’s recovery efforts were already starting to take shape. "Even with the devastation, CBP’s local employees were showing up for work ready to go," said Foret. "They were determined not to be the reason that a flight could not land or take off or shipments weren’t coming in through the ports. It’s ingrained within the culture of CBP to help one another to make sure the mission is carried out."

 


 

Last year, CBP’s Emergency Operations Center in Washington, DC, was stood up for a record number of 63 days. The center’s staff supported CBP’s response and recovery operations during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria, and Nate. Photos by Glenn Fawcett
Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Support System

Headquarters Emergency Operations Center provides a lifeline to the field

By Marcy Mason

 

The 2017 hurricane season set a new record for CBP’s Emergency Operations Center in Washington, D.C. The center, which was stood up at CBP headquarters as part of the agency’s response to Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that slammed into South Texas on Aug. 25, remained in place for 63 days.

"It was the longest running Emergency Operations Center that we’ve ever set up for a natural disaster," said Dario Lugo, operations manager for the center.

But the ongoing response to protect CBP’s operations was needed. Harvey was followed by Hurricanes Irma, Jose, Maria, Nate, and other tropical storms. "To have a succession of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes is rare," said Lugo. "In my 10 years of working with incident management at CBP headquarters, this is the first time that we have responded to so many catastrophic storms that made landfall on the continental U.S. and its territories."

For most natural disasters, CBP maintains an Emergency Operations Center from four to seven days, but the amount of time is based on the impact of the storm, so sometimes it runs slightly longer.

"If it’s a fast-moving storm the way Hurricane Nate was, which moved swiftly through the Gulf region, four days from beginning to end is not uncommon," said Lugo. "There wasn’t a lot of damage, our assessments were done very quickly, and the accountability of our personnel, which is the commissioner’s highest priority, was done within a matter of hours."

Even though the Emergency Operations Center is based at headquarters, it is not the brain of CBP’s response activities. "We support the individuals in the field who are responsible for the recovery from the event," Lugo explained. "We have easy access to CBP leadership and can obtain answers to their requests in a matter of minutes rather than days or weeks."

CBP’s Emergency Operations Center also works closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, to monitor storms. "They are the experts in hurricane plotting, charting, and graphing," said Lugo. "It’s the tool that any responder in the U.S. government or the media uses. Weather reports are all drafted based on information that NOAA provides."

The staff in CBP’s Emergency Operations Center then shares that information with the lead field coordinators and incident managers in the areas affected by the storms. "We make contact with the incident managers within that regional area and then we identify needs and try to estimate what the response will be. Once we determine the impact, we decide how long we will need to support them," said Lugo.

Approximately 15-20 people, representing the different offices within CBP, comprise the nucleus of the Emergency Operations Center. These individuals give information, make decisions, or complete necessary transactions such as purchase supplies or move helicopters, boats, or other assets. "Many times the same person is filling the chair, so some individuals are putting in some long hours," said Lugo. "My staff was there from 6 o’clock in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. Some nights we were there till midnight, but we were there because we wanted to be part of the solution," he said.

"Generally speaking, we never really shut down," said Dwayne Myal, a CBP senior preparedness planner who was part of the core team that worked 63 days in the Emergency Operations Center. "People may go home to rest, but for the most part everybody is still monitoring and following what’s happening. If a Category 5 hurricane is approaching, we’re not really sleeping because this is a problem that is going to have a major impact on the American public and our colleagues. So it weighs heavy on us. There’s no full disconnect."

Mid-September was the most challenging time for those working in the Emergency Operations Center. "When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, our recovery efforts were still ongoing for Harvey in Houston," said Lugo. "We also were dealing with evacuation orders for our employees in South Florida, the Florida Keys, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who were suffering from Hurricane Irma. These were all concerns at the Emergency Operations Center at headquarters, and it was the same staff that was working on Harvey, Irma, Maria, Nate, and Jose."

But there was tremendous gratification. "We knew the importance of what we were doing and that we had to do our very best," said Myal. "We had lives depending on us."