Displaced Puerto Rico site manager keeps Warfighter First

By Jake Joy

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Property Disposal Specialist and jack-of-all-trades Luis Pena runs a one-man show that covers the military’s disposition needs throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

For the past month, he has demonstrated DLA’s Warfighter First ethos despite the conspicuously challenging conditions his family and his island face.

Pena’s home in the San Juan area has been uninhabitable with no electricity or running water since Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 monster, ripped a path right across the middle of the island. His DLA Disposition Services office, at Fort Buchanan, is without power. His base has no official projected timeline yet for regaining electricity and reopening to all workers. He is living with his wife in a hotel – their second, after the first ran out of generator fuel and went dark – on evacuation orders set to expire Oct. 19. He said he and the citizens around him face potable water shortages, extremely limited communications and hours-long lines for gasoline rations, yet Pena remains hard at work linking agency scrap contractors with the military units requiring storm debris cleanup.

“He’s having to do everything in person,” said Jacksonville Area Manager Terry Surdyke, who Pena reports to and who arranged a phone interview during one of the rare opportunities he knew Pena would have cell phone service. 

Pena said coordinating scrap removal without the luxury of email or the phone requires face-to-face meetings, meaning driving through “a lot of traffic” because of damaged infrastructure and no working traffic lights. Because Pena is in a “non-essential” billet, he does not have priority for fuel stores available on base and he said he – like other working people around him – has to “physically battle” to fill a fuel container.  

Pena first evacuated for three days in early September for Hurricane Irma, another Category 5 storm that grazed the north of the island while churning westward and eventually causing an estimated $63 billion in damage.

Fort Buchanan reopened shortly after Irma passed. For the next week and a half, as the island tried to clean up the mess, Pena worked to continue issuing equipment even as predictions for Hurricane Maria began indicating an impending direct hit. Pena said he provided law enforcement and GSA customers with perhaps 20 generators in the days leading up to Maria’s landfall, and was still monitoring equipment pickups the day of, right down to the moment when the base closed at noon and a new evacuation order went into effect Tues., Sept. 19.  

“We all faced something we’ve never seen before,” Pena said of the storm that came next.

He said that in the aftermath, the military community on the island has sprung to action and Fort Buchanan “became like a full-blown military operation. Everybody’s doing their job, everybody’s busting butt. … At the same time, there’s no water, no power in their homes. It’s difficult.”

Pena said five truckloads of storm debris got removed from Fort Buchanan and Muniz Air National Guard Base Oct. 5 and he planned to make a journey the next day to try and coordinate support for Camp Santiago in Salinas, on the southern side of the island.

“Luis is eligible to retire, so I sometimes think about how we will deal with that eventual loss,” Surdyke said. “I honestly can’t imagine how we will fill Luis’ shoes with someone as perfect for his position as he is. His work ethic and extraordinary dedication to our mission, the excellent customer relationships he has established as a native Puerto Rican fluent in Spanish, and his cross-functional skill set are rare, for sure.”