NJ law enforcement officers return from recovery efforts in Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a category 4 storm. When video started to come out of the area, it was clear how hard the island had been hit. Gov. Chris Christie signed an executive order sending law enforcement, in addition to the National Guard, to support in the recovery efforts.

“As we flew in, you could see the houses. Basically a lot of the rooftops were blown off coming into the airport and it was devastating,” said Sgt. 1st Class Juan Siso.

Siso says once they touched down they were picked up by other fellow troopers that showed them around. There was no power, no running water and communication was down. This was about three to four weeks after the hurricane hit.

“I would compare it to the pictures of Sandy. A lot of debris, cars that were flooded and pushed to the side, traffic signs, traffic posts basically mangled, so it was true devastation,” he said.

Over the course of two months, teams from New Jersey were sent for two week stints. Lt. Col. Albert Ponenti’s job was to set up a plan for the deployments from a home base.

“Everything’s being monitored. Real, live feeds are coming in on our board to give the cabinet and the executives in the room a real good picture and overview of the landscape,” Ponenti said. “When we had Sandy, we had contiguous states that would respond here to support us and our recovery efforts. Here, Puerto Rico is an island as was the U.S. Virgin Islands, getting there, you could only get there by plane or by barge, so our day to day efforts were to set up the logistics.”

During the planning phase they would take down notes to see what they needed to send to Puerto Rico. A board shows items like fuel, water, food, paper towels and trash bags.

New Jersey officers were spread out in three locations on the island ranging from about 30 to 50 miles of each other.

“Which was San Juan, Bayamon and Caguas, so we operated in those three different areas,” Ponenti said.

Everyday, they’d wake up around 4:30 in the morning and work in the hot sun for about eight to 12 hours, helping direct traffic at intersections without power to help cars get around safely. On their breaks they would go out and help people in the neighborhood, bringing them any extra water or food they had.

“We took on that because we were the only law enforcement entity that went there with vehicles,” Ponenti said.

Siso added, “The people were ecstatic. They couldn’t believe that New Jersey, New York, was down there helping out. Very strong people, they would actually bring us food and water while we were sitting post out there or standing post. [The people who had barely anything] would give us what they had and it was very emotional for a lot of the officers down there.”

“It wasn’t just the state police doing it as one entity, we were doing it collectively as a state of New Jersey, representing the state of New Jersey in support of the folks of Puerto Rico,” said Ponenti.

Today, things are getting better in Puerto Rico, but Siso says there are still people in the interior part of the island that are still without power and some without water.

“To me, that’s what I took back the most, how resistant the people of Puerto Rico are and just getting by day to day without power, running water or even a roof on your house,” Siso said.

He says those people are not forgotten.

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