By Jennifer McDaniel for the Lincoln Sentinel
When Bill Cagle learned about an opportunity to support disaster response and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, he had to volunteer.
In mid-September, the unincorporated U.S. territory took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria. The storm nearly reached Category-5 strength as it made landfall on Sept. 20, cutting a devastating path as it pounded the region with rain, widespread flooding and sustained winds topping 155 mph.
In the days that followed, the catastrophic storm left residents lacking shelter as well as access to electricity and clean water. Power was knocked out, and homes were flattened on an island which is home to nearly 3.7 million residents.
The slow, painful recovery process had begun.
In response, the USACE requested volunteers as officials mobilized teams from across the country to support response and recovery missions in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Volunteers were already being deployed to Texas, Florida and the Virgin Islands in addition to Puerto Rico. Cagle, a Lincoln resident who works for the Corps of Engineers at Wilson Lake, decided to offer his help.
An employee for three years this spring, Cagle retired from the Army National Guard in 2002 after serving 20 years. Although he previously volunteered for fire duty with the Forest Service, this was the first time he had served with the Corps of Engineers. As part of the disaster response effort, Cagle volunteered in a civilian capacity as a component of the Department of Defense.
Cagle was deployed Nov. 20, starting a tour that would last more than 40 days. During much of his stay, he was based in Ponce, the second-largest city in Puerto Rico. Founded in 1692, the city is situated in the southern coastal plain region, which is known for its arid conditions.
Cagle worked as a power quality assurance specialist and accompanied power line crews as they restored electricity. Puerto Rico has 2,400 miles of transmission lines across the island, and 30,000 miles of distribution lines. Corps officials estimated that 80 percent of the grid was affected.
Each morning, crews would head out to nearby communities like Coco, Coamo, and Salinas, traveling 30 minutes to an hour each way to the work site. Shifts were long, he said, lasting 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Occasionally, we worked a little more,” he said. “They were pretty long days. We didn’t have much time to unwind, but once you got into it, it wasn’t too bad.”
As a quality assurance specialist, Cagle’s role was to document the work being done through photographs and reports. He was also responsible for keeping an inventory of all materials used, such as the number of lines installed and pole used.
“I kept track of what was being done as evidence of how federal dollars were being spent,” Cagle said. “I took a lot of photos and kept a daily log of what (crews) did, and the equipment and manpower used, which would change daily.”
Because the island’s seaports were damaged by Maria, ships were unable to gain access, slowing the delivery of vital materials. In the meantime, crews were forced to salvage poles, cable and other equipment.
“There were a lot of things they had to reuse, and that takes time,” he said.
When Cagle left Lincoln, fall was turning to winter. At the time, temperatures were unseasonably warm as daily highs stayed in the high-50s and low-60s. But in Puerto Rico, temperatures were much hotter, usually rising to 90 degrees each day. And the humidity, he said, made it feel hotter. While he admitted that temperatures bordered on hot, it didn’t take him much time to get acclimated. Cagle, who grew up in the South, prefers the warmth rather than bitterly cold temperatures.
“So, 90 wasn’t so bad,” he said.
But when he returned home on Dec. 30, the arctic chill was almost too much. During the first few days back home, Cagle said he stayed inside much of the time.
As crews continued restoring power through much of Puerto Rico, Cagle said he was lucky: The hotel where he stayed in Ponce already had working electricity and air-conditioning when he arrived.
“The living conditions were fine at the hotel,” he said. “But there were other people – the people who lived there – who had it much rougher.”
When he first arrived on the island, Cagle said he stayed four days at a hotel in the scenic coastal city of Aguadilla. But the hotel, he said, often experienced power outages.
During his stint in Puerto Rico, Cagle took advantage of the opportunity to explore the culture, sampling authentic dishes. Much of the native cuisine, he said, reminded him of Mexican dishes in the United States. But unlike Mexican restaurants, which offer an entrée and a side of refried beans, dishes there were accompanied with starchy, potato-like roots.
While Ponce had American fast-food staples like Burger King and Subway, Cagle sought out local food. Because of his adventurous palate, he wanted to try traditional Puerto Rican dishes. Most menus, he said, were rich with seafood dishes. Cagle also tried roadside food stands, where he sampled empanadas. He also tried mofongo, a native dish made by mashing tostones (fried plantains) with garlic, olive oil, and chicharrones or bacon.
“Don’t ask me what was in it, but it was really good,” Cagle said. “I also liked fried plantains, which resemble a banana but aren’t as sweet. I liked everything I ate. Some people were afraid of getting sick, but I never did.”
Throughout the tour, Cagle had the chance to interact with residents, who were grateful for the work responders were doing.
“The people were very friendly, and they were sure happy when the power came on,” he said. “When the lights came on, it was like a party. Everyone would come outside, and bring out food.”
But out of all of his experiences, one he will likely never forget was driving in traffic. Orderly traffic rules were replaced by basic survival instincts. Other drivers would cut Cagle off, he said, pulling their vehicle out in front of his. He described the experience as insane, especially since the traffic flow was regulated by speed and guts instead of traffic lights, which were busted.
“Other drivers would pull out in front of you, but there was no other choice,” Cagle said. “It was so congested. If someone drove like that here, other drivers would get upset. But no one got upset there. It was just the way it was.”
“You would get up to an intersection, and the first person to slow down had to wait. That really struck me. It was almost like chicken, but it worked. I know there had to be accidents, but I didn’t see any when I was there.”
Something he did see quite frequently were iguanas. The harmless, green lizards weren’t as prevalent in urban areas but were plentiful in more remote regions.
Cagle said he learned the lizards weren’t native to the island and were first introduced as pets. But, either by escaping or being dumped by their owners, they thrived in the environment and multiplied rapidly. Cagle remembers an instance when crews were installing power lines in a jungle region. The clumsy lizards tumbled out of the trees trying to get out of the way, potentially falling on crews below.
He also noticed several stray horses and dogs. After a disaster, pets can be separated from their owners, and often wind up abandoned and wandering the streets.
“Dogs were everywhere,” Cagle said. “Most of them were friendly, but twice I ran across some aggressive ones. Once, a contractor was bitten and had to be treated for rabies…it was not uncommon to see stray horses walking through town eating grass in ball fields or people’s yards.”
While Cagle enjoyed the experience, he doesn’t have any plans to return anytime soon. He and his wife, Jill, have six children, including two adult daughters and four teenagers still at home.
“For the experience, I would do it again, but I was gone too long,” he said. “My wife held down the fort while I was gone, and did a good job. But with four teenagers, I need to be here.”