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Wilson County official helps Puerto Rico with storm recovery


"Se levanta," or "we rise" in Spanish, adorned signs and merchandise throughout Puerto Rico during Wilson County Emergency Management Director Gordon Deno's recent three-week deployment to help with hurricane recovery.


By Brie Handgraaf
The Wilson Times

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

WILSON — Wilson County Emergency Management Director Gordon Deno has helped to mitigate devastation in New Orleans, Florida, South Carolina and closer to home, but he didn’t know what to expect when he got off the plane on Nov. 12 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The United States territory suffered widespread damage after Hurricane Irma skirted the island on Sept. 6, and after Hurricane Maria hit the island on Sept. 20, the entire country was left without power. Deno’s six-person team was one of two from North Carolina that headed south to help with incident management and disaster recovery.

“The biggest problem down there is electrical utilities. Hurricane Maria was a Category 5 storm because there is nothing higher, but light poles were snapped, power lines were brought down and thousands of miles of wires are on the ground,” Deno said. “People ask why it is taking so long to get the power back, but it is hard to convoy trucks to an island, not to mention all the poles and wires have to be brought in.

“Power restoration is moving slower than people would like, but it is what it is. In Utuado, where we were working, and Adjuntas, where we stayed, they are out of all power until the distribution line can be rebuilt. That said, people are going back to work with or without power.”

A helping hand

In the mountains about 70 minutes from the country’s capital, Deno’s team was charged with helping the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency’s zone director with resource requests, situation reports and so forth.

“Their emergency operations plans are kind of vague, so I had Wilson County’s entire plan translated into Spanish and gave that to them,” Deno said. “It was passed on to municipalities, so they could see how we include plans to address fire, rescue, public health and more.”

The team members — Planning Section Chief Virginia McGill from Haywood County, communications specialist Set Strayer from the Greensboro Fire Department, Operations Section Chief Donnie Tipton with McDowell County EMS, N.C. Emergency Management Logistics Section Chief Tommy Wendelgass, Carlos Rodriguez with the Charlotte Fire Department and Deno — helped with administrative duties, worked to train local officials on incident command and worked on physical resources such as restoring two radio systems.

“One of the medics, Elvin, showed up to every shift with a smile on his face and his uniform pressed even though he hadn’t had power since the storm hit, and he didn’t know when he would,” Deno said. “He would say, ‘It isn’t about me because I’m honored to serve my community.’ To them, it is an honor to provide medical service and care to others in dire situations.”

He said the Puerto Rican people’s resilience was ever-present whether Deno was talking with emergency personnel, employees of businesses or people on the street. “Se levanta” — “we rise” in Spanish — became a rallying cry among Puerto Ricans, incorporated into marketing of everyday items and art across the island.

“One family we went to was sleeping basically in a storage building. The mom, dad and four daughters were living in about 600 square feet with the dad working every day, the mom doing what she had to do and the girls going to school,” Deno said. “We helped them put a tarp over the top because they were having trouble with the roof leaking. I asked them about it and he said, ‘We’ll get through it. Se levanta.’”

The resolve struck Deno so deep that he drew a sketch combining the Puerto Rican flag, angel wings, “se levanta” and a heart, which was tattooed on his forearm after work one day at Tony’s Tattoo Shop.

“We got to talking, and he said he’d lost this and that, but added that, ‘I’m not dead. My family is not dead. God allowed me to live through this,’” Deno said. “His house was torn up, but his shop was OK, and he was happy he could work.”

Many of the restaurants and shops used generators, but Deno said many just did without power and running water — fact that is likely to not be remedied anytime soon.

“I think recovery will take a year or better,” Deno estimated. “Longer than that probably, but at least a year before most of those people will get their lights back on.”

Deno’s team arrived back on the mainland on Dec. 3. It is unclear whether additional teams will head south, and that will depend on what resources the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency requests.

“I’m grateful I got the opportunity to take training I’ve gotten within North Carolina to help others outside Wilson County,” Deno said. “North Carolina is very proactive in responding to other areas, and I’m proud to be a part of using our skills to help others.”

U.S. Virgin Islands

Less than a year after trading mainland living for island life, Mother Nature upturned Carolyn Huber’s life. She hunkered down as Hurricane Irma barreled down on her home in St. John.

“She posted a video on Facebook during the hurricane. She was panicked, and we didn’t hear from her for three days,” said Huber’s sister Terri Gray, who operates the Domino’s franchise in Wilson and has done mission work in St. John. “That was a nightmare for us, and it was a nightmare for her, too.”

Stateside, loved ones were able to get Huber a spot on a boat from Puerto Rico that brought supplies to St. John. From there, she was shuttled to the capital and eventually flew back to the states. For more than two months, Huber stayed with family but returned to island living on Dec. 5.

“St. John is still beautiful, but there is lots and lots of work to be done,” she said. “What is strange to me is see how far Irma washed the sand from the beaches.”

The mother and grandmother had anticipated relying on a generator, but her home has power.

“Crews are working their way to the other end of the island,” she said. “I would say right now probably 60 percent of the island maybe has power.”The lush landscape has begun to recover from the devastation, but the same cannot be said for the island population.

“I would say between 30 and 40 percent of the island population is gone, and I’m thinking half of them ain’t going to come back,” she said. “It feels a bit like a deserted island.”

She said the majority of the remaining residents have secured jobs in recovery and reconstruction.

George Bancroft, whose father lives in Wilson, said the uncertainty regarding employment factors into whether he and his fiancée will return to St. Thomas after fleeing in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

“Right now, my fiancée and I are in the midst of talking about the pros and cons about going back,” Bancroft said. “We like the area, and the people are great. The island is coming back quicker than some expected in terms of power, but we’re trying to figure out the feasibility of jobs.”

Bancroft worked for Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort, taking refuge there when Hurricane Maria pummeled the already hurting island.

“Hurricane Maria was another crazy ride that really just damaged the islands even more,” Bancroft said. “It wasn’t as bad as Irma, but everything was already beat up. It did a lot more damage to the roads because of the flooding, so it was hard to get around.”

He said neighbors came together to help friends whose homes were damaged and clear streets. Power outages were widespread, as was an exodus by islanders.

“A lot were trying to get boat rides to Puerto Rico and St. Croix or wherever they could get a flight,” Bancroft recalled. “I saw a posting on Facebook where someone had literally rented a private jet with eight spots available for like $2,500 apiece. That is how bad it was for people trying to get off the island.”

With resources scarce, chaos and confusion were prominent.

“There is a lot of tension because there is no work,” Bancroft said. “All of the businesses have shut down and so many have left because of the living conditions.”

It took Bancroft and his fiancée about two weeks to escape the island. Now he is working at a Marriott resort in Myrtle Beach, but is longing to return, especially to see how the island’s peak tourism season is faring.

“We have to stay positive and keep moving forward,” he said.