Surviving the Storms Surviving the Storms - Page 7

'In This Together' from page 5

The Miami VA Healthcare System provided medical care, services and supplies to the Florida Keys as part of the federal emergency response in Monroe County.

And in San Juan, VA Caribbean Healthcare System staff were part of a team of federal, state and local partners that coordinated the patient reception, medical triaging and relocation of evacuees from other parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands impacted by Hurricane Irma. Evacuees were transported to the San Juan VA Medical Center and community hospitals in Puerto Rico.

And unfortunately for San Juan, the crisis was not over yet.

Hurricane Maria Strikes

While many in Florida and elsewhere seemingly dodged a bullet, on Sept. 20, barely two weeks after Irma struck, Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph sustained winds, the strongest storm to ever make a direct hit on the U.S. territory in almost a century.

The hurricane slammed the territory with such intensity that it reportedly broke two National Weather Service radars there, according to CNN.

The island lost complete power, the AP reported that 85 percent of 1,600 cellphone towers were down, and almost 90 percent of above-ground and under-ground phone and Internet cables were knocked out.

Worst of all, extreme flooding, toppled power lines and roads blocked by debris made reaching people—and assessing damage--extremely difficult. Other than satellite phones and a few spotty cell phones, nearly all communication was cut off. Water and food were scarce with cash-only as the only accepted currency on the island.

“It was like a nuclear bomb went off across the island. The trees have no leaves. Houses have no roofs,” noted Cosme Torres-Sabater, Emergency Manager for the VA Caribbean HCS.

During and after the storm, the San Juan VA Medical Center continued to operate on backup generator power. Over 300 patients were sheltered-in-place there and about 800 employees hunkered down overnight for five days, caring for their charges.

Despite the hurricane’s thrashing that flooded the city with over 20 inches of water, the damage to the hospital limited to minor flooding in the cafeteria and in a few hallways. The clinics didn’t do as well.

“As a result of our preparations for Irma, we were operationally ready for Maria,” said Torres-Sabater. He noted the staff is working hard to meet Veterans’ needs. Mental health and spiritual services are also being provided to Veterans and any employee who may need them.

“Morale is very high. Employees are happy to be here to take care of our Veterans. They wanted to work despite their personal situations,” the 15-year VA employee and retired U.S. Army Reservist, said.

Puerto Rico’s challenges are not over, however. Recovery efforts are ongoing across the island, the living environment is primitive, and infrastructure repairs could take months, if not years, according to officials.

As of this writing, because of challenging communication and resource issues, medical services at the San Juan VAMC were limited. Some outpatient clinics have opened and others, badly damaged, remain closed with services offered in traveling medical units.

See 'Help on the Way' pg 9

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SURVIVING THE STORMS

"It was like a nuclear bomb went off across the island. Trees have no leaves. Houses have no roofs."

- Cosme Torres-Sabater, on Hurricane Maria's devastation in Puerto Rico