GIG HARBOR, Wash. — A Gig Harbor man returned from the Caribbean islands where he deployed on September 4 as part of FEMA’s national urban search and rescue team to help during and after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Thomas Miner says he’s been through a lot of hurricanes but the devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria was unlike anything he’s seen before.
“This event is a logistical nightmare,” said Miner.
He said that because Puerto Rico is an island, getting help in and out of the area is extremely challenging. Airports, major roadways and ports were all impacted by the hurricane.
“Until you've been in 150 mile per hour sustained winds, for hours on end, you have no earthly idea what that's like,” said Miner.
He was staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Juan, a building, he said, which is designed to withstand 140 mph winds. Miner said the people he was with took shelter in the stairwells during the hurricane and could see and hear windows being blown off.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a category 4 hurricane with winds topping 150 mph, causing widespread destruction.
“They’re lost the 9-1-1 system, ability to talk to fire, police, ambulances, hospitals. The people lost the ability to call in for help. It was total blackout. There was no information flowing to responders or from the responders to the public,” said Miner.
He added that with no radio, no newscasts, people weren’t able to get information about when the weather may clear.
Miner said that unlike Hurricane Katrina that killed around 1,800 people, the death toll from Maria is minimal, with at least 16 so far, according the Associated Press.
Miner said what’s challenging in Puerto Rico is the infrastructure was weak to begin with.
“I don’t know that there’s any building on the island that didn’t suffer significant damage,” said Miner.
He said the recovery and rebuilding will take years but help is heading to the island.
"The amount of stuff going in there is unlike anything we've seen before,” said Miner.
Those supplies must come in through ports or by airplane -- a slower process than what’s available when hurricanes hit the mainland U.S.
"Yes, there will be lots of help here, but you can’t expect it to be here in 24-48 hours,” said Miner.
He said we can all learn from the ongoing heartache in Puerto Rico by being prepared to take care of ourselves for at least 5-10 days in the event of a natural disaster.
“Think about how can you not be the person in the gas line, not be the person in the 8-hour line waiting for ice, not be the person in the grocery store grabbing the last item off the shelf,” said Miner.
He said people need to realize that government assistance responding the next day to everyone is unlikely. He advised that people need to take preparation seriously.
“Our turn is coming, the big earthquake is out there,” said Miner.
The Resilient Washington Subcabinet, a panel of state agency leaders and experts that has been meeting for nine months, provided Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday with a draft report with recommended short- and long-term action items to bolster the state’s readiness in the face of a major earthquake.
They recommend being at least two weeks ready and have a “build kit” with essentials that can help a family survive for up to two weeks in the event of a disaster like an earthquake in Washington.