Volunteers from St. Louis continue work in Puerto Rico - KMOV.com

Volunteers from St. Louis continue work in Puerto Rico

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Photo of crews working on roof in Puerto Rico (Credit: Keith McMullen) Photo of crews working on roof in Puerto Rico (Credit: Keith McMullen)
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV.com) -

It has been more than four months since Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Volunteers from the St. Louis-area are still there, trying to help with the struggling recovery effort and even more are getting ready to deploy there this week.

Keith McMullen, a supervisory regulatory project manager with the St. Louis District of the US Army Corps of Engineers, was one of the first to deploy to the island after the disaster. He was part of the Army Corps’ “Blue Roof Project,” which involved going to homes and assessing roof damage so contractors could make immediate, but temporary, repairs and get the homeowner through until they can get a permanent fix.

“You are heartbroken. Literally. I am amazed, I’ve seen pictures of hurricane damage throughout the world before but physically being there, with my boots on the ground, you are in awe, like ‘How could someone go through this and survive?’” said McMullen.

Now, through his experience and others, we are getting a better idea of why the recovery effort is taking so long.

According to the latest CBS News report, 82 percent of power generation is working and 65 percent of the island has electricity, while 450,000 people remain without power. As of January 16, the Army Corps estimated 62 percent of blue roof installs, which are the temporary fixes, were complete.

The data is revealing but people like McMullen, who volunteered to be deployed there, say there is more to the story.

“I would say we saw areas that were as bad as what you saw on TV, but we also saw areas where we were making a difference. It seemed like maybe the national media had its picture that there is no one there helping, the Corps isn’t there, FEMA isn’t there, volunteers like Ameren and power people, they’re not there. But they were,” said McMullen. “We bumped into so many people with emergency shirts, jackets, vests, hard hats, all doing different things than what we were doing. All there to help.”

McMullen says a lack of volunteers wasn’t the problem. The issue was logistics on the ground.

“Traffic lights weren’t working, toll booths weren’t working. There were lines and trees blocking the road and they hadn’t had time to get those cleared,” said McMullen.  “Some of us were staying on ships until they had hotels available. Some of us had rental cars. Some people had trouble getting a car because there weren’t enough cars to get around,” he said, and went on to explain with some of the smaller rental cars, they couldn’t get into the more rural areas.

McMullen said he, too, heard reports of supplies sitting in ports. While he said that wouldn’t surprise him, his team had no problem getting supplies.

One of the biggest issues, though, was communication, both within the team and with locals.

“Once we got out into the areas where we were doing our inspections, you would hold your phone up to the sky and it was like, ah I have no bars, I have no communication,” said McMullen of the cell service. He also said the language barrier added another layer.

“But, the thing I’ve told people is these people in Puerto Rico were so gracious. Some of the nicest people I could ever hope to meet. And the thank you’s, the hugs, the God bless you’s, you never got tired of that. It hit you in the heart every day when another ten people hugged you and told you that,” said McMullen.

Although he has been back in the states since the holidays, he is keeping tabs on crews still working in Puerto Rico.

“It’s been ‘Hey we got cell service.’ They can answer emails, communicate better, supplies are supposedly not running out, they are getting things out to the field, more contractors are working with our people now,” he said.

There are still 44 people from the St. Louis District of the US Army Corps of Engineers working in Puerto Rico.

Now, even more crews from other St. Louis businesses are heading to the island.

On Friday, 76 line workers and support personnel from Ameren Missouri and Illinois will depart for Puerto Rico. Their mission will be to repair energy infrastructure and ultimately restore power.

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