Deployment to Puerto Rico
I’ve been training search dogs for ten years, and I’ve never been close to going out the door. With all of the hurricanes in August and September, there was talk of going to help, but I didn’t focus on it. There had been talk before. So, when I got a phone call from Chief McKinster one evening asking me if I was available to leave the next morning, it took a moment to process. Kinsey and I might actually get to help people. Yes, of course my answer was yes.
Seven of us from California Task Force Six were deployed to Puerto Rico for 19 days. We went as one of the very first canine Mission Ready Packages–meaning they sent a small team and four live find search and rescue dogs from CATF6 to help after Hurricane Irma.
A lot happened on deployment, so much that I could write a book and too much for a single post. So, I’ll start my tale here, with answers to the very best questions I’ve been asked about my experience.
What was the hardest part?
Waiting for Hurricane Maria to hit. The seven of us from CAL6 were packing to leave Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma when Hurricane Maria started to make the news. FEMA asked if we could stay, and we all agreed. The evening before Maria was predicted to roll in we were watching the news and this popped up: Puerto Rico: Evacuate or Die. The fire guys, being fire guys, were excited. YEAH! CATEGORY FIVE HURRICANE! But I’m a librarian, and, not to perpetuate the stereotype, but most of my adventures take place between the pages of a good book. I wasn’t hoping for a CAT5. I hoped the forecasts were wrong and Maria would miss the island altogether.
That night as I lay awake in bed texting friends and family, wondering if I would survive, the winds outside sounded like a jet engine. Rain seeped in around the sliding glass door. Palm fronds abandoned their trees. Sleep eluded me. So, when I received a text at five telling me to evacuate because 190 mile an hour winds were expected, I grabbed Kinsey and my pack and was downstairs in seconds flat.
Waiting out the actual hurricane involved sitting in a large windowless ballroom deemed safe by the structural engineers for most of the day. While the firemen slept, I watched water pour in through the canned lights and fill up multiple trash cans. I watched the chandelier sway. When the worst of it was over and I could think again, I wished I’d brought a book. It was the build up, the anticipation, the way my mind raced through every possible death scene in every natural disaster movie I’d ever seen. I imagined screaming and panic and dismemberment. Didn’t happen. It was water and swaying. That was enough.
Was Kinsey ever scared?
No. Not once. We went on various airplanes, in a van and a jeep, rode a ferry and survived a hurricane. Not a single thing phased her. In fact, during Hurricane Maria she wagged and licked as many firemen in the face as she could.
Did you find anyone?
The truth is there weren’t many collapsed buildings for us to search. The homes I saw were made out of cement or cinder block, and for the most part they weathered through the hurricane. I saw missing roofs, flooded roads and lots of downed trees. Luckily, people weren’t trapped and in need of a search dog.
What was most surprising?
The amount of packing and repacking deployment requires. I believe the seven of us took 24 bags to Puerto Rico and back. And not small bags, huge red bags that could easily hold 100 pounds of equipment. Once you’re on base, you have to get your backpack ready for your assignment. And no matter what the assignment might be, you must be prepared to be gone from base for 72 hours. That meant multiple face masks, MREs (food), a flashlight, a radio, extra batteries, a raincoat and food for Kinsey all jammed into a single pack. When we returned to base at night, we unpacked and restocked to be ready for the next mission.
What was the best part?
I loved the feeling of being on a team. When you’re in the classroom, or the library, you’re the leader. You have teachers that are your friends, and admin that drops in, but ultimately it’s your domain, sink or swim. Deployment was different. We wore the same uniform. We ate together. We laughed together. We had the same goal–help the people of Puerto Rico. I loved that shared sense of purpose.
Now, when I hear about Puerto Rico on the news, I think about the people I met there. The man that asked me to come back to visit. The bilingual woman who was patient with me as an English only speaker. The children that wanted to pet Kinsey, but were too scared. (Their parents and I encouraged them, and eventually they scratched her head and got close enough that Kinsey could sneak a lick.) I pray often for the people of Puerto Rico, that they have the food and water they need, and that electricity will soon be restored. I’m so grateful that Kinsey and I got the chance to help.