Acting Commissioner McAleenan Travels to Florida Keys and Caribbean to Meet with Employees and Survey Hurricane Damage
As U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees continue to struggle with the devastating aftermath of Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey, CBP Acting Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan traveled this week to the Florida Keys and the Caribbean to check on their welfare and show the agency’s support.
The commissioner, who visited the Florida Keys on Wednesday, and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Thursday, surveyed the damage caused by the hurricanes and met with CBP employees to hear about their challenges both personally and professionally. He told employees that they are not alone in this tragedy and that the agency would not abandon them. “CBP is a family. We take care of each other,” said Commissioner McAleenan,
On Wednesday, McAleenan did an extensive aerial tour of the Florida Keys in a helicopter operated by CBP’s Air and Marine Operations to examine the damage from the storms. He then met with CBP employees and their families at the Marathon U.S. Border Patrol Station in Marathon, Florida, where he was greeted by Chief Patrol Agent Matthew Zetts.
The commissioner listened as employees shared their concerns and personal stories. One Border Patrol agent talked about how his home had been ravaged by the storm. He explained that his house had suffered significant water damage from flooding. He also said that his family had been displaced and that they were now living in a hotel. Other employees shared similar stories. Some said they were now living with neighbors.
Commissioner McAleenan assured those that gathered that the agency had a plan in place and was committed to helping with their recovery. He mentioned that on Tuesday, prior to leaving on his trip, he had extended an evacuation order that authorized and provided protections for employees and their families to evacuate to a safe location until they could reestablish themselves and return to normal operations. The evacuation order, which was originally signed by Commissioner McAleenan on September 5, 2017, is now extended through March 4, 2018.
On Thursday, the commissioner began his day with an extensive aerial tour of Puerto Rico to survey hurricane damage on the island. His first stop was on the west side of Puerto Rico in Aguadilla at CBP’s air branch where he was met by Incident Commander Chief Ramiro Cerrillo. After touring the area, the commissioner held a town hall meeting with CBP employees at the Ramey Forward Deployed Operations Command Center. He later flew to San Juan where he held another town hall meeting with employees at the hurricane relief distribution site of the San Juan CBP emergency operations center.
“We have employees throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who are dealing with a complete loss of electricity and in most instances a complete loss of water,” said Vernon Foret, CBP’s Caribbean Area Commander. “Our employees are doing their best under very difficult circumstances to meet the needs of their families, and at the same time, they have been dedicated to the CBP mission, the facilities, and in helping each other get through these very difficult times.”
CBP conducted a two part operation. The first was locating all of CBP’s employees, who have now been 100 percent accounted for in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The second part was offering CBP employees and their families the opportunity to evacuate to a safe place. The majority of them that have evacuated have been temporarily relocated to Florida.
“They are very resilient. The people here understood that they were going to lose power. That’s not uncommon in this region. They have made preparations for that,” said Foret. “A much more prevalent concern that we hear from our employees in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is about how the hurricanes are affecting their children’s education. Their children may not be in school for weeks or months and the parents, our employees, do not want them to fall behind.”
Later on Thursday afternoon, Commissioner McAleenan took similar aerial tours of St. Thomas and St. Croix to survey the extensive damage on the islands. He also similarly met with CBP employees in both locations.
“We’ve got a mission that’s very important,” said Foret.“To address and prevent terrorism and instruments of terror from getting into the U.S. and its territories as well as facilitate legitimate travel and trade, we need our employees at work to ensure that we don’t have any gaps or vulnerabilities that these types of events create,” he said. “We need to process passengers at the airport to make sure that they’re admissible and have no ties to terrorism. Likewise, we need to scan cargo coming in to ensure that there’s nothing in that cargo except what is manifested and intended to be there. And we can’t do that without our employees.”
Commissioner McAleenan told employees that CBP’s No. 1 goal is to be ready when business resumes. “It’s going to take a while, but we want people to return to some sense of normalcy and that means planes and ships coming in on a regular basis,” he said. “The process needs to be as seamless as possible even with the challenges that we have.”