Debris and destruction. That’s what’s left of two of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John.
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With the help of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Puerto Rico and Caribbean branch, I was able to see the might of Irma in the hurricane's Category 5 stage during rescue flights over the two islands today. The mission for the six-man crew I accompanied was to conduct search-and-rescue operations and drop water to the islands.
We landed in St. Thomas expecting to transport a diabetic man who needed an amputation because of gangrene. He couldn't receive medical assistance on the island because the hospital has been destroyed.
The team waited at what was left of the airport: the tarmac. The terminal building already reeked of mold and wet ceiling tiles soaking in standing water.
Customs and Border Protection was among the first agencies to make it to the island. Now a makeshift control system tries to make sense of a pirate-like air space. Landing at the control tower-less airport, private medevac planes and helicopters -- all branches of the military, Coast Guard and Puerto Rican forces -- made a constant buzz in the air.
As for our patient, it was not only medical facilities that were lacking but communications as well. The team with him couldn't use its satellite phone. An hour passed, and word came over the busy radio that he had been picked up.
We moved on to survey damage but not before seeing what appeared to be a family with suitcases boarding a Navy helicopter. They were the lucky ones, a common expression heard around the Caribbean to describe people who have been rescued.
The flyover of St. Thomas showed what was left of the island. The trees on the once-lush island had been stripped bare.
Irma left her presence known: Boats were tossed from their docks into the already debris-filled streets. Home after home, neighborhood after neighborhood destroyed. A church, with part of its roof blown off and steeple caved in.
It was the arrival in St. John that showed the mind-blowing wind force. Wreckage was littered everywhere, siding wrapped around a tree, trees split in half as people waved to the chopper, like a temporary OK.
The crew decided to make a water drop. As we made our approach, a number of cars started driving to the staging ground to see what they could get.
Our time on the ground was short because we needed to make it back to Puerto Rico before going out for another mission.
But for these men, some of whom worked in Houston during Hurricane Harvey, a change in plans came: Everyone was to go home; Florida needed their help. They planned to hop their way over the Atlantic Monday to Miami. More rescues awaited.