SAN JUAN, PR. –
Luis Pena knows Puerto Rico. He knows the local flavor of the language, the history of the island’s indigenous tribes, the good seafood restaurants. He knows which roads to take at which time of day to avoid traffic backups.
He knows what the island was like before Sept. 20, 2017, when Hurricane Maria, the 10th most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, carved its way across its mountains, jungles and villages. By the next day, he and the 3.5 million other Americans who called Puerto Rico home began assessing the maimed and disfigured towns and cities, their homes and hospitals twisted in ways they struggled to grasp, and began new lives, without the aid of electricity.
At the hotel where his family had sheltered, 130 mph winds raged, glass doors shook, the roof began peeling off and water started pouring in as Maria passed and knocked out power everywhere.
“It was very scary,” Pena said. “My wife and my daughter were scared. But there was no other place to go. That was it.”
Pena, who served in the Army for eight years and has deployed multiple times to Iraq as a civil servant, said he’d never experienced anything as difficult as Maria before. He said he’d never seen palm trees stripped bare and had never imagined lines of 500 or 600 cars waiting six or seven hours to get $20 of fuel.
“After the hurricane, it was more difficult [than deployment],” Pena said. “Fuel shortages. Water shortages. You couldn’t buy anything with a credit card. And how do you get cash? You’d go to the banks, they’d only give you $100 cash. And people had to pay cash on a daily basis for their hotel rooms. I saw people with kids, whose homes were destroyed, getting thrown out of their hotel because they couldn’t pay that day. With no water and no food. And you have no light. None. You can’t go outside at night. Where do you go?”
Pena could have fled the island prior to the storm. The Defense Logistics Agency authorized emergency leave and transportation for his family. He could have holed up in Florida for a while, lending a hand at another agency field site, waiting for electricity and normalcy to return at home. But he chose to stay.
Pena is DLA’s only full-time civil servant on the entire island. He is the lone DLA Disposition Services representative for Army, Navy and Coast Guard units operating from bases and outposts all across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. When the services are finished with their property, he’s the guy. When they have questions, he’s the guy. When they have a pile of scrap building up, he’s the guy.
“If I had left, I’d be coming back to a nightmare. Customers would have said, ‘hey, where’s DLA when you need it?’” Pena said.
Instead, Pena worked right up until the moment the base locked down, issuing used generators to municipal governments and police departments. And as soon as the storm had blown through, Pena began crisscrossing the island in his Silverado, literally fighting for his spot in fuel lines and navigating perpetual gridlock to conduct business with military customers who suddenly needed a whole lot more scrap removal support.
“When I’m needed, I’m there,” Pena said. “I said ‘I can’t sit here at the hotel and let all this happen.’”
In the months after, Pena became a road warrior, always on the go to reach the customer. He helped deployed disaster response personnel however he could, with scrap removals and spare parts for their equipment and vehicles. In just four months after the storm, he had already arranged for 80 scrap loads, with many more expected to come throughout 2018.
“Comms were destroyed,” Pena said. “No landlines, no internet, no TV, no FM radio. Communication was face to face.”
When the work week ended, Pena would make the trek to his childhood home of Maya Guez, on the far western tip of the island, to visit his 84-year-old father and bring him generator fuel. His father went more than four months without electricity and burned through a handful of generators in the meantime. Pena would buy him a new one as soon as a generator died.
“He thought the hurricane was going to take him,” Pena said. But he credits DLA for helping his family persevere. “I could have been in a big hole without the help and support of my supervisor and agency leadership.”
Pena doesn’t mince words about Puerto Rico’s future. He said some aspects look bleak. Most homeowners do not have insurance and won’t or can’t rebuild. Schools are closing. He said the National Guard bases will probably not be restored for a long time simply due to the cost. They whole island suffered another power outage in mid-April and the power grid remains a big question mark. Hundreds of thousands of people left that may not return.
“Many people I know – they have left. Whole families,” Pena said.
For his part, he says he’s not going anywhere and isn’t working on his retirement plan – though he’s eligible, with more than 30 years of federal service under his belt. Pena’s wife said she can’t see him hanging around the house, gardening, and he asks what he would do with himself if he didn’t have the DLA mission to look forward to each morning.
“I still enjoy the work,” he said. “I still enjoy getting up and going. It’s different every day. Different requirements, different situations, different challenges,” Pena said. “But I love what I do. I love working with the warfighters.”
See the video, “When the Nation Calls, DLA Answers,” featuring Luis, at https://youtu.be/8aSG2X1wWMY