NIAGARA FALLS AIR RESERVE STATION, N.Y. — About 125 Soldiers of the 152nd Engineer Support Company, New York Army National Guard, deployed Thursday from here to Puerto Rico.
The engineers are deploying to provide continued hurricane relief to Puerto Rico, where they will do such tasks as debris removal, clean up and restoring lines of communication. Heavy construction equipment belonging to the 152nd ESC already shipped from New Jersey on Oct. 13.
"Things we might work on will include clearing roadways and removing obstructions and clearing debris," said Capt. Nathan Attard, commander of the 152nd ESC. "We are often called out based on the capabilities that we are known to have, in order to bring in people and equipment to take care of different situations."
Deploying to Puerto Rico, the engineers are taking with them an array of experience in dealing with relief situations. They have been on the scene of many major storms that have battered their home state of New York over the last few years.
"We are the same people who responded to the November snow storm that dumped seven feet of snow in Buffalo," said Attard. "We responded to Hurricane Sandy and other natural disaster type events around New York State."
Within the 152nd ESC, there are a variety of specialties and numerous types of specialty equipment. Some of the equipment having already been shipped to Puerto Rico includes dump trucks, front loaders and excavators.
"We have people from all different expertise," said Attard. "Being part of the 204th Engineer Battalion we have people that can do construction using heavy equipment, who can build in terms of making repairs to buildings, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other support elements that can help in a number of way."
However, no one from the 152nd ESC has personally seen the level of destruction in Puerto Rico before deploying.
"I’d say to people it looks like a story from The Walking Dead," said Capt. Mario Ibarra, a WC-130 pilot assigned to the 156th Airlift Wing, Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico Air National Guard. "All the houses damaged and trees that have fallen down, there’s a lot of bridges down, a lot of people without electricity and even water. It’s a sad scene."
Despite the struggles that the people of Puerto Rico are facing, they are staying positive and hopeful. They are coming together to restore their way of life.
"Most of them are in high sprits, everybody is trying to help each other," said Ibarra. "But it’s already been a month and we almost in the same spot as a week after the hurricane. People were maybe not expecting everything to take so long. But all the agencies and the military are down there helping out, including the National Guard from all different states."
According to Ibarra, almost 95% of residents still do not have power. While many major roadways were cleared, some of the more rural roads still remain blocked and with bridges down, some communities are almost isolated with helicopters being the only way in and out.
"A lot of people have to go out and walk. I’ve seen rope systems to bring water and food from one area to another because there are no bridges to cross the rivers," said Ibarra. "They say the power may take six months to get back online, others are saying a year or two years to get it back to where it was. A lot of things have changed, it’s a different reality than before the hurricane hit."
The level of devastation that has happened has been something unlike most people have seen. While in Puerto Rico they expect the occasional harsh weather, the latest hurricanes have been unprecedented.
"It’s really hard, we are pretty used to hurricanes but nobody expected this," said Ibarra. "The last one I remember I was a little kid, the last one that hit pretty hard. It’s a different generation now though, one that isn’t used to being without technology so it’s really hard for a lot of people."
The Soldiers of the 152nd ESC however are more than ready and willing to help fellow Americans. It is a daunting task, but one that they are up for.
"We are looking forward to helping the people of Puerto Rico as we have helped the people of New York," said Attard. "I don’t think we have been in a situation quite like this where power and communications are almost completely down."
While New York has seen its share of tragedy and disaster due to weather, they know they are going to see something that they have never seen before.
"If you think about the things that have struck New York, they were bad but not anything like this," said Attard. "This is unique, we don’t usually leave New York like this but there was a need for us."
As Citizen-Soldiers, they will not only put their military to the test, but their civilian training as well.
"In the 152nd ESC we construct things like roads, airfields and helipads, so we are actually trained in these types of tasks, said Attard. Not only do we do this as Guardsmen, but a lot of us are professional construction workers," said Attard.
Being able to bring this much experience is what Attard said put them at the top of the list when New York looked to see who could accomplish this mission. The relief that they are bringing will be invaluable.
"I really appreciate everyone that has come to our help," said Ibarra. "There’s a lot of fellow Guard units in the Army and the Air Force that have come to our aid and calling us and asking us what we need and are helping out."
Those in Puerto Rico such as Ibarra know the sacrifice that is being made by such service members as those in the 152nd ESC. For that, they are thankful.
"Every time I get a chance to see a fellow Guardsman from the main land I give them thanks because they have left their homes and their families to be able to help us out," said Ibarra. "I’m really grateful and appreciative of all the military members that have been able to come down and have sacrificed their comfort to be able to help us out."