By Heather Collins
Everywhere they looked, Whitestown Fire Dept. Chief Josh Westrich and Zionsville Fire Dept. Division Chief Mark Hart saw devastation caused by Hurricane Maria during a 16-day deployment to assist in rescue efforts in Puerto Rico.
“There wasn’t a part of the island that wasn’t completely untouched by the hurricane. It definitely hit every bit of it,” Westrich said. “Every leaf was ripped off every tree. It had a barren look instead of the tropical look.”
Westrich and Hart were among a 27-member team recently deployed with Indiana USAR Task Force #1. Team members spent 12 days on the island assisting with relief efforts by completing targeted searches and relaying information between emergency responders, officials, hospitals and FEMA.
“We were the initial push in finding out what was the damage,” Hart said.
The team served as the main communication point between the affected communities and FEMA. With the power grid down, Westrich said there was no easy way for community members to seek assistance, so the team was a welcome sight. The residents were in desperate need of food, fuel and water, he said.
“They were happy to see us, because they hadn’t been in contact with anybody,” Westrich said.
The team members covered more than 7,000 miles during the trip. They loaded ready-to-eat meals and water bottles into Jeep Wranglers and distributed them to children and those in need.
“There wasn’t a spot on the island we didn’t see,” Westrich said.
During one of their missions, the team did a search and welfare check on a Korean War veteran and his wife. After finding the couple using GPS coordinates, the team members learned that the couple was low on food so they left a few MREs on their table.
“We turned around and he had tears running down his face,” Hart said.
Hart said the couple had only had a can of SpaghettiOs left to eat.
“It’s just helping people,” Hart said. “It’s what firefighters do.”
Hart said one of the most amazing things he saw during his trip was how the residents banded together to begin fixing their own communities by clearing streets and moving trees.
Westrich, a FEMA USAR specialist with Indiana Task Force #1, has previously been deployed for relief efforts during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Henryville tornado. Hart has been with the Indiana Task Force #1 for the past 17 years and has previously been deployed for relief efforts during Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and the Henryville tornado.