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Airman shares story of family, service in wake of natural disasters

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Robert Hicks
  • 621st Contingency Response Wing

ROOSEVELT ROADS, Puerto Rico -- Growing up in Puerto Rico five miles from Roosevelt Roads, one Airman from Travis Air Force Base, California, knows all too well the dangers due to the location of the island.


“Since I was a child, my family would always stock pile food and water in preparation for the hurricane season,” said Capt. Christian Ocasio, 821st Contingency Response Support Squadron civil engineering officer. “There would always be a powerful storm heading straight toward us, but would change directions at the last minute.”


That’s exactly what Hurricane Irma did after devastating the U.S. Virgin Islands.


On Sept. 6th, 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Irma, Ocasio and his eight member team were sent to the Virgin Islands to perform an airfield assessment of airports in St. Thomas and St. Croix. Ocasio didn’t know he would end up enabling hurricane relief efforts for the next two months.


An airfield assessment team is responsible for make sure the airfield is able to support aircraft especially AMC aircraft because they are so heavy, he said. The team is comprised of a communications, security forces, air field manager, air traffic controller, civil engineer officer and assistant, senior airfield authority officer and team chief.


After the assessments were complete, the team went to Puerto Rico to wait for a flight back to Travis AFB. While there, Hurricane Maria formed.


He spent several nights in Puerto Rico with his family tracking Hurricane Maria’s every move. As the storm grew to a category 4 hurricane and was on a direct path to hit the island, the assessment team received orders to move to MacDill AFB, Florida, where they waited for three days before later departing for St. Thomas.


“Fear, anger, abandonment are a few things I felt when I had to leave Puerto Rico right before Hurricane Maria devastated the Island,” he said. “I didn't want to leave them behind. I felt like I abandoned them during one of the worse storms ever.”


According to Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello, Puerto Rico has not experienced an event of this magnitude in their modern history. The hurricane struck the island with winds up to 155 mph and left millions of people without water, power or telephone coverage.


The night the storm made landfall, Ocasio was in constant contact with his mother and sister until around 4 a.m. when they lost cell phone service.


“I didn't sleep at all that night,” Ocasio said. “I was getting messages from my sister saying how the kids were scared, and how they had experienced nothing like this before. This was only the first hours of the storm, I knew they still had another eight hours to go. It was terrifying.”


After Ocasio lost contact with his family, he attached himself to the news and social media, trying to get any information he could to paint a better picture of what was going on in Puerto Rico.


“My family lives in a lowlands area, and you see the videos of the massive flooding online and you immediately think, ‘They have to leave the house during the storm and fight the dangerous winds to get to higher ground,’” he said. “Then you start creating all these scenarios in your mind that could happen, but are probably not.”


After Hurricane Maria passed, the assessment team was tasked to reassess the airfield in St. Thomas to ensure the runway was not damaged and could still support aircraft delivering relief supplies to the island.


“When they told me I was going to St. Thomas, it bothered me a little…it had been several days after the hurricane and I still had not heard anything from my family, but I knew, just like I was responding to St. Thomas, my brothers-in-arms will be responding to Puerto Rico,” he said.


The team was at St. Thomas for three days when Ocasio was requested to go to Puerto Rico to advise operations and translate with the local community.


“As soon as I landed, I went to check on my family,” he said. “When I drove up to my sister’s house, she was outside trying to get leftover water from the pipes. She didn’t recognize me until I got out the car, and she immediately got emotional. Then my nephew came over and gave me a hug and started crying as well. It was just a total relief seeing them and knowing they were okay.”


Once he knew his family was okay, he wanted to be hands-on with any type of operations assisting Puerto Rico back on its feet.


“My family was safe,” Ocasio said as he smiled. “Now I just wanted to help, so I drove to Roosevelt Roads where I knew there would be a contingency response element arriving in a couple days. I performed an airfield assessment and started creating relationships with the other agencies already on the ground.”


When the contingency response element arrived from Travis AFB, Ocasio was the first person the team met.


“After all his family had just gone through with Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria devastating the island, he was still here ready to complete the mission,” said Lt. Col. John Berger, CRE commander at Roosevelt Roads. “He provided us with a detailed brief on the status of the airfield and then he served as a translator and trusted advisor as we met with local airfield authorities. By performing assessments on three of the four major airports in Puerto Rico, Ocasio has done more for the relief effort on the island than anyone I’ve met.”


Since arriving in Puerto Rico, Ocasio has traveled to Aguadilla and Ponce to perform airfield assessments to ensure humanitarian aid can continue to flow through Puerto Rico on AMC aircraft.


After almost a two month stint, Ocasio ended up leaving Puerto Rico Nov. 2 to return to Travis with his team.


“I feel like I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “There were so many factors that came into to play that allowed me to be able help. You never hope that something will happen to where you are from but as a service member we are in the best position to help.”


(Additional information contributed to the article by Air Mobility Command)