The U.S. territory is three hours away from the Nutmeg State, but Connecticut State Police have established a presence on the streets of Puerto Rico, helping to serve and protect the residents.
On Nov. 27, 13 state troopers packed their bags and said good-bye to their loved ones as Gov. Dannel Malloy deployed them to Puerto Rico to help with restoration efforts after Hurricane Maria.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Sgt. Alex Giannone of Berlin told The Herald by telephone Monday from Puerto Rico. “I knew it was a disaster but I didn’t know it was like this.”
In addition to serving in the state police for over 10 years, Giannone, a husband and father of two, was elected to the Berlin Town Council in November.
He said he is conversationally fluent in Spanish, and his team of fully fluent Spanish speakers are stationed in Humacao, on the southeast coast of the island.
With a population of more than 58,000, the area was one of the first hit by the Category 5 hurricane in late September. Much of the island was still without power.
“The roads are narrow, telephone poles are down, wires are hanging in the street,” said Giannone.
He said stores are closed and the few that are open are being powered by generators. Some buildings are unrecognizable, with roofs peeled back. Potable water is desperately needed, he said.
According to a resident he spoke to, Giannone said, people gathered in a stadium for protection as Maria approached.
They first heard brief moments of whistling, similar to that of a train. But once the hurricane hit, the whistling was constant before and water flooded the stadium.
Giannone said he heard the story of a man whose attempt to huddle under an overturned refrigerator with this family was unsuccessful, forcing the family to huddle under an overturned refrigerator for protection, forcing the family to break into someone else’s two-story house and climb to the roof for safety.
“Everyday we’re asking what’s the priority, and that changes,” said Giannone of his team, that are on their feet 12 to 15 hours a day under the hot sun.
That includes teaming up with the New Hampshire State Police to facilitate delivery of generators to a mental hospital that a security team had abandoned because they weren’t being paid.
Giannone told The Herald that one mission also included a trip into a neighborhood in need of renovation where tensions were high between the authorities and the residents.
Primarily, though, the Connecticut troopers are monitoring and directing traffic through intersections where signals are out and cleaning up damaged sites.
They are also delivering meals and water to Puerto Ricans.
He said missions are sometimes carried out in what are called “disaster zones,” meaning areas that have been declared inhabitable and anyone who stays in them has been left on their own. Some of the residents have been unable to leave on their own, he said.
The missions come at the request of the Puerto Rican police, FEMA and local people asking for help.
“There’s so much to do here,” said Giannone.
By in large, he said, he’s “astounded” at how friendly and resilient the people are, despite not having power, or hot water for showers.
“People will drive into the middle of an intersection to hand us water,” said Giannone. “That’s something they don’t have enough of (themselves).”
Giannone said his team is working on getting local police hats to fit in more and praised the teamwork of the visiting troopers as well.
“This is why you get into public service,” he said. “Not a single guy has complained while carrying out the missions.”
As for life back home, Giannone said his team gets a few minutes prior to 6 a.m. roll call at the police station, before the power is shut off for a couple hours, to check email and deal with personal matters, such as his responsibilities as a Town Council member. He also keeps in touch with his family.
“I wouldn’t be able to do anything without (my wife),” said Giannone. “She’s a lot stronger than me, I think.”
Along with the New Hampshire State Police, officers from the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police and the Florida Highway Patrol are in Puerto Rico with the Connecticut contingent, as are state police from Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.
Giannone and his group are expected to return to Connecticut on Dec. 14.
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or firstname.lastname@example.org. . On Twitter: @CPaullinNBH.