Westover reservists step up to help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, Florida
While some of the humanitarian effort has happened at the base in Chicopee, the bigger work is being performed by crews who deployed at a few hours’ notice to southern air bases on Sept. 11 and are still working there.
“It is a humanitarian mission and a true American effort,” said Master Sgt. Andrew Biscoe, acting chief of public affairs, adding that he is proud of the Westover reservists who answered the call for volunteers.
About 50 reservists flew to Homestead Air Reserve Base, in Florida, to assist their fellow airmen and citizens. As power was restored, streets were cleared and evacuated personnel began returning to Florida, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, devastating the island, which had already been damaged by Irma.
About 45 members of the Westover group in Florida were sent to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia, where a Federal Emergency Management Agency staging area had been set up to ship supplies to Puerto Rico. Most of the crew are members of the 58th and 42nd Aerial Port Squadrons and are specialists in loading cargo and personnel on planes properly and safely. The group also includes five command and control experts, said Chief Master Sgt. Patrick Burke, the senior enlisted member for the Westover team.
Although the group is more than 1,500 miles from Puerto Rico, the work they are doing is critical to helping the victims, said Burke, who has been a reservist at Westover since 2009.
“I’m looking at highly trained and skilled airmen who are moving a lot of FEMA equipment to San Juan,” Burke said. “They can now go out surveying or delivering aid and it is a direct result of what we have done.”
Once officials decide what equipment must be flown to the island, the aerial porters take over. They inspect each piece of equipment to ensure it can fly safely, figure out how best to place equipment to balance the weight, pack some on pallets, load it on the planes and secure it for flight, Burke said.
The squadrons have been working with a combination of civilian and government agencies including FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Health and Human Services, Burke said.
The crews have been using a variety of available aircraft including C-17s and C-130s. Just a few days ago enough repairs had been made to the airport in San Juan to start landing C-5M Super Galaxy jets, which can carry the most cargo, he said.
“The focus is on our job because nothing can get down there without us,” Burke said.
The squadron has been loading a lot of FEMA trucks, many of which tow generators. They have also been moving a lot of workers, especially those who can repair the power infrastructure, since nearly all of Puerto Rico is without electricity.
“We sent runway lighting equipment and they now can begin night ops,” expanding the number of flights that can come into Puerto Rico, Burke said.
Many planes that left with equipment are returning with civilians evacuated because the infrastructure is in very poor shape, Burke said.
“A couple of nights ago, some of our guys had to help carry some people on gurneys,” he said, explaining critical care patients have been moved out of hospitals because even those with generators have run out of fuel.
The Westover Reservists had a short time to mobilize. Burke said he got a heads-up that people may be needed on Sept. 10, but he said others had four hours’ notice before the Sept. 11 deployment, which is expected to last a month or longer.