BRICK – Brick Police Officers Vincenzo Rosa and Joseph Rossi called their recent trip to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico “life changing” after spending two weeks helping in recovery efforts.
The men were asked to join a contingent of NJ State police officers from the state EMAC (Emergency Management Assistance Compact) system, who were looking for local officers who could speak Spanish.
Rosa and Rossi were deployed with an estimated 200 officers from New Jersey. Their strike team included two NJ State Troopers, two officers from the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department, and a detective from the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
The officers were deployed from November 4-18 to the island’s second most populous city, Bayamon, located on the northern coastal valley.
The city was two months into their recovery from two September hurricanes, Irma and Maria, that left 100 percent of the island without power, no cellphone communication and widespread catastrophic damage to homes, businesses and the infrastructure.
Rosa said when they got to Bayamon, 85 percent of the traffic lights weren’t working, so they were assigned to traffic control and distributing food and water from a local warehouse.
“There were a lot of homes destroyed, trees were down…we had flashbacks of Sandy,” said Rosa, 50, when he and Rossi, 33, sat down for an interview at police headquarters at the end of November.
Rossi said the best view they got of the island’s devastation was from the airplane when they flew in and the path of the storm was clearly visible.
“Palm trees and telephone poles were snapped like matchsticks. They looked frozen that way,” he said.
The officers worked 12-hour shifts and they were confined to their hotel at night for caution, Rossi said. While looting had subsided, and businesses had started to reopen, the NJ State Police were told by the local government that they did not recommend allowing the officers to go out after their shift.
Every night before they could enter their hotel, everything had to be decontaminated, from their cars to their boots and uniforms because sewage was backed up into the street and there were concerns about the Zika virus, they said.
“We stayed in our district. The roads were destroyed, so only the National Guard could get through,” Rossi said. “Although they did a pretty good clean-up before we got there, so the roads near us had become passable.”
The officers said that many of the structures in Puerto Rico were designed to withstand storms. For example, most of the first floors on homes are concrete, and so are utility poles, but roofs were blown off homes and people were still living in them using tarp roofs, and utility poles were mostly tilted.
“No one came out to ask for help. They are a very culturally proud people,” Rossi said.
Rosa said the officers would bring bottled water into neighborhoods, and while they were distributing it other people would filter out of nearby homes. “No one came out asking for help, it wasn’t like that,” he said.
Rossi said the people they interacted with “never had that look like they weren’t going to make it.”
Both officers described conditions of jammed intersections in 90 degree heat with motorists stopping to give water bottles and food to the men.
“These are people who have nothing, and they’re stopping to give us water and food, they were so appreciative,” Rossi said. “We didn’t know what to expect – our expectations were far exceeded – the citizens were so happy we were there.”
Rosa said the experience was overwhelming and a once in a lifetime opportunity. “We went in feeling like it was a different country, but we left feeling like we were a part of it,” he said. “The people were beyond appreciative; they didn’t want us to leave.”
Rossi agreed. “The people made it such a great experience for us, the way we were received; there was no negativity. After the abundance of help we had after Sandy…you have to pay it forward,” Rossi said.
A police spokesman said that FEMA paid all expenses for the officer’s trip and would reimburse Brick Township for their salaries for the two weeks they spent in Puerto Rico.