Up until 1990 when he enlisted in the Army, Alberto Solano Rodriquez had lived his whole life in Puerto Rico and experienced firsthand the damage caused by hurricanes throughout the years.
When Defense Logistics Agency Aviation’s Deputy Chief of Staff Kathie Rowland put out a call that the Department of Homeland Security was seeking federal civilian employees to volunteer to support communities effected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma this past fall, Solano Rodriquez, a material planner with DLA Aviation’s Planning Process Directorate, was one of the first to raise his hand.
Though Solano Rodriquez had a combined 10 years Army active and reserve duty before joining the DLA civilian workforce nine years ago, this was his first deployment.
“Helping people is my passion,” he said. “I still have family in Puerto Rico, some still to this day without electricity. When I heard there was a need for volunteers, I wanted to help.”
Solano Rodriquez said getting supervisory approval and filling out the application was only the first of several steps before he was placed in a position to help others.
His journey began Oct. 8, 2017, when he joined several hundred others from different government agencies, for a week-long training session at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s training center in Anniston, Alabama.
“I’ve made friends with many people from all over the nation – it’s been quite eye opening,” he said. “It’s amazing to see such an awesome group of people come together for a common cause to assist FEMA in this unprecedented series of disasters."
When training was finished, Solano Rodriquez said the group fanned out to different locations based on need. Some were reassigned on the ground in either Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. Others, like himself, were assigned to FEMA Call Centers in Denton, Texas, or Carlson City, Nevada.
According to the recruitment message sent by Rowland, the greatest need was for support to disaster survivors helping them navigate the available programs and register for federal disaster assistance.
Originally scheduled to work in the Texas call center, Solano Rodriquez quickly learned to be flexible when his assignment was changed to Nevada at the last minute.
“Change is the norm out here – the FEMA staff have a saying ‘Be FEMA flexible;” in other words, the only constant is change itself. I can understand that, as we all have come to understand, that nothing is normal in a disaster,” he said.
Solano Rodriquez said the days were long and nights short having to wake up at 3 a.m. for a van ride from lodging in Reno to the call center. Once there, he worked 11 hour shifts. Despite the long hours, he said, he didn’t mind, considering the task at hand.
“Our primary duties were call center responsibilities. We were in a constant training mode, learning FEMA’s Registration Intake System and Help Line, so that we could properly get applicants into FEMA’s system so they could get the assistance they so desperately needed,” he said. “Learning a new system in such a short period of time was quite challenging, but FEMA has put a process in place that made it tolerable.
“Can you imagine training hundreds of new employees for a monumental task in one week and then expect them to perform flawlessly in a dire situation,” he said. “I most certainly commend them for doing such a great job. One day of orientation, a few days of training, and then on the job – not on the job training – but on the job.”
Solano Rodriquez said most of the calls he took came from Puerto Rico. “The people were suffering tremendously! Many remained without basic services, had no homes and were in dire straits,” he said.
He also assisted hurricane survivors from Florida, Texas, and those suffering from the California wildfires. He said he averaged between 25 – 30 calls per day, 6 days a week.
Solano Rodriquez said one of the toughest challenges was finding Spanish speaking volunteers. Fortunately, he speaks fluent Spanish and FEMA has a process in place called a “language line”, where the incoming call is placed on hold for a language line person to assist with interpretative services.
He said another major issue he dealt with was the lack of electricity. This limited internet services and other communication infrastructure.
“Some of the calls were dropped while we’re communicating with the applicants needing services,” he said. “Can you imagine having suffered through major hurricanes and having lost everything, then having your call dropped when you were able to finally reach someone?”
Solano Rodriquez said, “In some cases people had to stand in line for five to six hours for gas and to charge their phone, then drive two to three hours to get a cell phone signal, call FEMA service for help, wait on hold for long periods of time, finally getting someone on the phone who could help and then, having their call get disconnected – that is debilitating!”
Solano Rodriquez said some days were frustrating listening to people who said they didn’t get assistance, but their neighbors did. “Sometimes their lack of assistance was because of communication difficulties, of language barriers, of problems in thinking applications were completed, when they weren’t or were completed incorrectly. While we did the best we could, we too were at the mercy of a lack of infrastructure services.”
But he said there was satisfaction in being able to help. He recalled helping an elderly lady living on her own, get the assistance she needed with her medicine and food. Two weeks after taking her application, Solano Rodriquez said he found out she got the help she needed.
“I had mixed feelings doing this type of work,” he said. “The stories will make you laugh and have tears falling on your keyboard all in the same day.”
Solano Rodriquez’ initial deployment was scheduled for 45 days; however, as the needs of individuals were met, the need for volunteers decreased, and he is was able return to Richmond early on Nov. 10.