Story by Amphibious Construction Battalion 2 Public Affairs
CEIBA, Puerto Rico — As this year’s hurricane season comes to an end, many Americans in the Caribbean and Florida will be left without homes, personal belongings and ultimately their day to day lives for some time to come. Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated these areas, but local Seabees (Bees) from Amphibious Construction Battalion (PHIBCB) 2 and Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 202 stepped up to assist by providing much needed relief in a critical time of need.
A total of 68 members from PHIBCB 2 and CBMU 202, broken into five Disaster Relief teams (DRTs), with their civil engineering support equipment (CESE) embarked the USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), USS Oak Hill (LSD 51), and USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) in efforts to provide a sea base capable of projecting aid ashore in very limited access areas.
On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma walloped the U.S. Virgin Islands and Keys with her Category 5 winds exceeding sustained speeds of 180 mph, leaving vegetative debris, power lines and mudslides throughout the U.S. territories.
As history would tell, the Seabees were called upon, this time to use their chainsaws and CESE to remedy the situation. Hampered by the high heat and humidity, the Bees relentlessly tackled over 50 miles of roadways and five acres of airfields throughout the islands and Keys, avoiding live electrical power lines downed by the storm. Guided by members of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (VIPR) National Guard as well as locals, the teams cleared several major routes on St. Thomas, St. John and Key West over the span of eight days, opening lanes of transit to the resident populace. Results were apparent immediately with motor vehicle traffic beginning to flow freely and locals cheering and waving to the Bees as they paved their way to victory.
“The single greatest benefit from our hard work in the Virgin Islands was seeing the enhancement of aid from the cleared thoroughfares we provided,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Gregory Torres. “This allowed Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and VIPR National Guardsman the ability to utilize heavy cargo trucks to push pallets of life essential supplies to local points of distribution.”
Unfortunately the Seabees’ job was not finished, three days after the Bees returned aboard their respective vessels; Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria and left in dire need of assistance. Sent ashore via Landing Craft Utility‘s (LCUs) from Assault Craft Unit TWO, the Seabees again joined forces to tackle the island’s choked roadways.
The Seabees initial tasking was clearing Highways 191 and 9966 in El Yunque National Forest to gain access to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) relay tower high upon the mountains, which was barely surviving on generator power and working at reduced capacity due to Maria’s intense winds. The Bees quickly made friends with locals running heavy construction equipment and together cleared 10 miles of dense rain forest debris in four days, allowing necessary repairs to be made to the FAA tower. Prior to the repairs, the surrounding airfields were only capable of landing one plane every half-hour. After the repairs were made, air assets were being landed every five minutes.
In conjunction with the repairs to the FAA relay tower, the Bees set up camp at La Cieba Airport where they cleared over four acres of hazardous brush along the runways allowing C-5 Galaxy and C-17 aircraft, the largest cargo carrying air assets available to military forces, the ability to land. Within one week of the Bees opening the airfields, over 600 civilian and government air operations took place enabling the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Air Force to flood the island with supplies.
Once all route clearing missions were complete, the Seabees again found their skillsets called upon in Puerto Rico. This time their tasking was to utilize their subject matter expertise to provide damage assessments and minor repairs to major infrastructures. With the electrical grid on the island disabled by Maria, critical facilities were running on emergency power generation with no distribution of fuel available, causing hospital operation sustainment to become the island’s top priority. Combining forces with the 26th MEU Medical team, two eight man teams over a period of four days embarked on a mission to inspect and assess the integrity and operational status of hospitals located in the central and eastern parts of Puerto Rico. The Seabees conducted assessments of 15 total hospitals, recording structural damage, water and fuel levels and operability of emergency generators ranging from 250 kilowatts to 1500 kilowatts.
Throughout this daunting challenge, the Seabees inspected and performed corrective maintenance on over 30 generators, repairing two critical emergency diesel generators at two hospitals, ensuring 13 intensive care unit patients, 12 new born babies and mothers, five life support patients, and over 300 dialysis patients had electricity to lifesaving medical equipment. During a time of crisis, these assessments and minor repairs permitted 5,000 residents to receive treatment for injuries caused by the storm with 1,200 patients able to be admitted. In total, these 13 hospitals directly supported over 750,000 Puerto Rican citizens. The Seabee’s assessment and minor repair efforts provided valuable assistance in humanitarian relief throughout the island of Puerto Rico but most of all, helped to save countless lives.
These 68 Seabees, like those before them, unselfishly answered the call of millions affected by these two catastrophic hurricanes. Keeping in tradition with the Seabee motto, “With compassion for others we build ~ we fight for peace with freedom.