Antonio Santini was willing to do anything — as long he got to Puerto Rico. He’d be a perfect asset for the U.S. Army’s Hurricane Maria mission: He spoke Spanish and he knew the terrain. The sergeant first class had been all over the world with the military — Germany, Peru, Qatar, Afghanistan — but this mission, to an island devastated by a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds, was “deeply personal.”
Fifteen hundred miles away, in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, Maria Rivera had survived the hurricane in her two-story house on the hill. Three generations of the family buckled down together as the whole house shook — the roof gave way, windows broke and water gushed in.
Amid the storm’s chaos, Rivera was calm. A deeply religious woman, she prayed for her family. For their house. For Puerto Rico. She and her husband stayed up through the night, bailing out water from the house. In the days that followed, while Santini was packing in North Carolina, making last-minute trips to the commissary on base at Fort Bragg, Rivera watched as their supplies dwindled and the water and power stayed off.
Six days after the storm, Santini caught a Boeing C-17 with three dozen soldiers, headed for San Juan. When they arrived, they stayed on cots in the city’s convention center — the staging place for most government entities like FEMA and the military. From there, Santini and his team loaded up their rented Jeep — the back filled with water, food and extra gas. With the stereo blasting heavy metal, they set off from San Juan for the mountains.
Santini got behind the wheel because he “knows this island like the back of my hand.” He and his crew traveled in a caravan with another Jeep carrying another Army team — a precaution Santini insisted on: “We’re up in the mountains. If my vehicle falls off this cliff on this mountain, no one’s ever gonna know where the heck we are,” he explained, “two vehicles, so we can call in if something goes bad.”
A part of the U.S. Army Special Forces, their main mission in Puerto Rico was to bridge communication gaps in isolated areas — to figure out what information still needed to be communicated and to whom. They flew down with a machine that could make 70,000 handbills in 24 hours, and as they traveled through the central mountain region they took notes and pictures to inform what gets printed in those pamphlets.
Photos: Carol Guzy for NPR