It has been a little more than a week since Hurricane Maria carved a devastating path through the island of Puerto Rico leaving 3.4 million citizens without power, running water and reliable communications. Utmost in my mind has been the safety and wellbeing of the 80 employees who work at the El Yunque National Forest, International Institute of Tropical Forestry, IITF, the Southern Research Station and State and Private Forestry.
As of yesterday morning we had managed to contact all but three employees and their families. We will not stop until we have accounted for them all.
I know you join me in extending our hearts and support to our employees in Puerto Rico, as well as their families, friends and our many partners and volunteers. They are an integral part of us; we share the pain of their loss. We also know we have mainland employees with family members in Puerto Rico. They are in our thoughts as well. We will share our strength and assistance as they all confront these difficult first days of the storm’s aftermath and begin the arduous road toward recovery. Help may be slower than we want, but it is coming.
I am grateful to first responders who are helping citizens get clean water, a meal, a place to sleep and other basic needs. Conditions are extreme with sweltering temperatures and flooded streets. It will be many weeks before citizens see any semblance of normalcy. That includes our offices on the Island. We are supporting the Southern Region, IITF and others as they strive to assist our displaced employees and begin work to confront the significant damage to our facilities and resources. They will conduct damage assessments when it's safe.
FEMA announced more than 10,000 federal and military responders will be on the ground to assist with search and rescue, power restoration, and the delivery of critical commodities.
The Forest Service is also supporting the recovery work on all lands. We are actively involved in the Federal response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While FEMA coordinates the overall response, the Forest Service is providing incident management and law enforcement resources. As of yesterday, 299 interagency responders (159 from Forest Service) had been mobilized for missions on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.Incident Management Teams are assessing fire protection capabilities, establishing and managing Logistics Staging Areas for water, food and resource receiving and distribution, and supporting jurisdictional emergency operations centers. Chainsaw crews are assisting with emergency road clearing to provide access for search and rescue crews and other emergency responders. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers are providing protection to Search and Rescue teams, Public Health and Medical Teams and equipment, and local citizens. Additional Forest Service responders are staged for upcoming missions on the islands.
Administratively, we received approval for administrative leave for our employees while they are displaced and without power. Our Human Resources Management staff has taken steps to ensure employees payroll is submitted and processed so much-needed funds are there when they need it.
But there is room for each of us to get involved. You can immediately contribute assistance to fellow citizens through a number of organizations; please visit the Government of Puerto Rico’s page for information. We will also seek other channels for charitable giving that will go specifically to our employees.
As recovery begins and progresses, there will be other ways to lend your support. We will provide updates as more information becomes available.
In the meantime, thank you for all your support, expressions and acts of kindness and contributions you have already made. As we do in times of crisis, we will rely on the big heart that is core to the Forest Service family to carry us through this tragedy.
Our employees in Puerto Rico can count on us.
“Siempre estás en nuestros pensamientos y oraciones. Estamos aquí para tí.”
“You are always in our thoughts and prayers. We are here for you.”
Chief Tony Tooke