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NNSA joins disaster relief in Puerto Rico

NNSA’s FEMA volunteers include, from left, Ronald Trott, Virginia Odierno, and Fernando Soto-Perez.

Several NNSA employees from the Office of Acquisition and Program Management (APM) are helping with response and recovery efforts following hurricanes Maria and Irma. They are supporting the Surge Capacity Force, a government-wide effort to supplement Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responders.

More than 20,000 federal civilian personnel and military service members, including more than 2,000 FEMA personnel, are on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands engaged in response and recovery operations from the storms.

Volunteers traveled to a processing facility in Anniston, Alabama, for training, skills assessment, and duty assignment prior to deploying to the disaster area. They are scheduled to be deployed for up to 45 days.

The surge force program is usually reserved for Department of Homeland Security employees, but with resources limited due to the hurricane relief efforts spread across Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, the program was opened up to all federal employees. This marked the first time all government employees became eligible for the program.

Meet the volunteers

Nina Rodriguez, a project integrator in APM, is in Puerto Rico volunteering as part of the External Affairs Intergovernmental Affairs team. She has been working with local mayors and city officials to ensure their needs are being met and processed.

The volunteers engage directly with disaster survivors, helping them navigate available programs and apply for federal disaster assistance. Rodriguez has experience providing direct support. She has been able to help out with a medical mission non-governmental organization that came to Ponce, Puerto Rico, to help hard-hit areas in the mountains of central Puerto Rico.

“This week, a cancer patient and her daughter (also a cancer patient) reached out to me looking for a medevac to Florida to receive the chemo and treatment that she hasn’t been able to get for the past month,” Rodriguez said. “Working with the Department of Health here, we were able to secure her a flight out through a non-governmental organization. Knowing that we may have helped her live is worth all the craziness and stress of the current situation.”

The team Rodriguez is volunteering with helps cities with food and water distribution processes, debris clean up and disposal, city infrastructure like water and waste water, and general energy requirements. They also work closely with FEMA, the Army Civil Affairs Teams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies.

Usually stationed in Albuquerque, Teresa Branom is working in Reno, Nevada, at a call center in a converted strip mall. She is one of about 700 volunteers taking phone calls from hurricane survivors, mostly in Puerto Rico. She helps register people for disaster assistance, complete registrations that need additional information, catalogue incoming documentation from survivors, and answer helpline calls regarding survivors’ registrations, appeals, and any other assistance as necessary.

“I know that I am making a difference, but not being on the ground in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands has been difficult. … However, this is a very important part of the recovery and very necessary,” Branom said. ”I am glad that I am here. And the moment you hear the gratitude in the voice of the survivor that you helped complete the registration process makes it all worth it. They have just lost everything and we’re able to give them hope and the knowledge that there are people here who care about them. That’s a wonderful feeling.”

Virginia Odierno, a contracting officer in APM, is supporting the efforts in FEMA’s Office of External Affairs in response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as a Research and Writing Specialist. The team she is volunteering with writes products on important topics such as how survivors can apply for disaster assistance, locations of newly opened disaster response centers, water safety information, and the various housing assistance programs, among other areas.   

“Being able to play a role in FEMA's disaster response and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico has been a very rewarding experience. When I leave the Joint Field Office in San Juan and see the extensive damage the island has sustained, I am reminded why I volunteered to support FEMA with this effort. There is still much work to be done, but I know that no role here is too small, and that every position is contributing to the disaster mission. It is heartening to see so many organizations--FEMA, the government of Puerto Rico, the United States military, other federal civilian agencies, and numerous voluntary organizations--working together, and I am very thankful to have the opportunity to be a part of it,” Odierno said.

Fernando Soto-Perez, a contracting officer in APM, went to support efforts in Puerto Rico. His volunteering effort was divided in two: DOE Public Affairs Liaison for FEMA and supporting DOE’s Emergency Support Functions # 12 (ESF-12) private industry power field assessments for private power companies in Puerto Rico, such as solar, natural gas, wind power, and others.

Soto-Perez was able to reinforce the communication channels between DOE, FEMA, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and the Army Corps of Engineers to provide updated, accurate, and verifiable data to the press/media on a daily basis.

In support of the EFS-12 private industry power field assessments, he toured the facilities to observe the damage caused by Hurricane Maria. Based on those assessments, his team was able to get a better understanding of how private companies could help Puerto Rican power restoration efforts.

“The reward is beyond words and explanation. As a Puerto Rican, born and raised in the island, it means the world to help my family and my people, especially in this type of circumstance. When I left the island many years back, I promised myself never to forget my roots or my people. I knew that someday, somehow I would contribute and give back to my country in a meaningful way,” Soto-Perez said.