Locals endure impact of hurricanes, help others
While multiple hurricanes hit the United States this year, many local people were involved both in disaster relief and in the disasters themselves.
Jerene Milliken, a Williamsport Area School Board member, said her son, Brendan Milliken, was in Puerto Rico at the time Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory.
Hurricane Maria became a Category 5 storm on Sept. 18, just before it struck Dominica. Its winds reached 175 mph as it moved over the eastern Caribbean. On Sept. 20, it weakened to a Category 4, then struck Puerto Rico. It moved northeast of the Bahamas, continued north, then, in late September, turned east. It had dissipated by Oct. 3.
Milliken’s son originally is from Williamsport but is serving in the Navy. He had a week’s leave and was spending it with his wife, Christine, as they visited her family in Laref, Puerto Rico.
“Her grandparents actually own a plantation in Laref. They live on the side of a mountain. Her grandparents, his grandparents-in-law … They farm on the side of the mountain, have all kinds of crops, and they also have some rental properties,” Jerene Milliken said. “They went down there after Hurricane Harvey, just the day before Maria hit.”
They had gone to help her family who had suffered damage from a hurricane just a few days earlier. While they planned to stay there only a brief time to help after the damage, Brendan and Christine were trapped under the impact of Hurricane Maria.
“They went to make sure that the grandparents were in good shape … They get down there, but the hurricane hit that weekend and rendered them unable to leave,” Jerene Milliken said.
She said the biggest problem was that the roads were impassable, and many of the people in the area sustained a lot of damage.
“Christine and Brendan were recruited to assist a lot of the families with helping with their homes and things like that,” she said. “They helped a lot with clearing the stuff and working with the churches, helping the local people.”
They weren’t able to communicate their safety until the roads were passable so they could get to San Juan and find certain areas with cellphone service.
“There was no communication whatsoever,” she said. “We were so concerned as we had no way of knowing how they were.”
She said many residents there had to conserve their resources.
“They all experienced the gas shortage. Christine’s grandparents had some propane, but it was also quite warm there,” she said. “They had a generator, but they had to be conservative with supplies. At the gas stations, there were hundreds of people in line … They waited overnight for gasoline in lines.”
She said her family was proud of their efforts.
“He never complained at all. They enjoyed it, and they really did some hard labor,” she said.
Despite Brendan’s unintended, extended leave, Navy officials understood the extraordinary circumstances and did not reprimand him, Jerene said.
Likewise, Lorena Beniquez, of South Williamsport, said her father, Jose Beniquez, of South Williamsport, went to Puerto Rico to visit with extended family members. She was unable to make contact with her father during the beginning of the hurricane’s impact due to so many dead zones in cell service and impassable roads.
“The difficulty is not only the fact that they don’t have cellphone service. They are going to have satellite phones, but how many people know phone numbers in this day and age? Certainly not my father; there’s no way he knows my phone number,” she said.
Part of the problem was due to the power outages across the island. She said some of the issue had been lack of information as San Juan, the capital and largest city, had gotten most of the news coverage. Isabela, where her family is located, is on the opposite side of the island, located in the northwestern region.
Since the time the Sun-Gazette previously reported on her father being missing, she has heard from him. She was relieved to hear of his safety, but many in Puerto Rico still are recovering from the devastation.
Hurricane Irma developed on Aug. 30 and eventually became the first Category 5 hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. Its 185-mph winds caused catastrophic damage in Barbuda, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands, but the eastern U.S., especially Florida, also was affected.
Fairlawn Community Church, 353 Pleasant Hill Road, Cogan Station, formed an eight-member team to drive down to Florida and help out with hurricane relief after Hurricane Irma impacted the area. The crew — consisting of Jim Barrett, Tim Bechtol, Jim Cowden, Monty Hornberger, Thad Temple, Tom Reed, James Polk and Chris Sholder — all were volunteers, joined together in their religious faith, who wanted to help out those in need.
The environment tested them as the heat and humidity felt strong to them.
“It literally smelled down there … like rot, stagnant water, decomposition, dead fish,” Barrett said. “It was hot, it was humid and it was smelly.”
Sholder said when the breezes came through, it made it a little more tolerable for the boys from up north.
The men used local churches to connect to those in need in the area who needed work done on their properties. They spent their time repairing roofs, clearing out roads, clearing away debris and helping people recover from damage.
Barrett said most people didn’t have a clue what the devastation was like as media outlets only covered areas they were able to access.
“Where we were going, it was way beyond those places. We were going in, cutting trees, opening people’s driveways … What you see on the TV just doesn’t give you an idea what it was like,” he said. “There was such devastation there.”
Reed said the damage was everywhere at different degrees and could be visible in any row of houses. Sholder said there were piles of debris 15 to 20 feet high along the roads.
“Until you’ve been there in person, you can’t imagine it,” Sholder said. “It just kind of blew my mind how despite all this, (our) small little group going down had such an impact on that community.”
Jeri Sims, American Red Cross Central Pennsylvania Region CEO, was deployed to Houston, Texas, to help with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
Hurricane Harvey caused nearly $200 billion worth of damage, mostly in southern Texas and in the Houston area. It formed on Aug. 17 and was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Wilma in 2005.
The first major hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, Harvey moved northwest from the Caribbean, at first weakening but then regaining intensity until it struck Texas as a Category 4. Unprecedented amounts of rainfall fell over the state. The hurricane moved east along the coast and also made landfall in Louisiana,
Sims said deployments with the American Red Cross are a minimum of two weeks, but many people who were in Texas had donated longer amounts of their time.
“Some have been a month, a month and a half, on a volunteer basis. That’s pretty impressive,” she said.
She said she has been touched by witnessing the amount of people gathering in Texas to donate their time and efforts on a volunteer basis.
“It’s life changing. If everyone had a chance to do this … we’d treat each other differently,” she said.
Other American Red Cross volunteers from Lycoming County went to Texas to help with Harvey relief. They included Gayle Peters-Coates, Jinny Borek and Diane McGinnis. Mary Jo Henrickson and Al Smith were deployed to Florida to help with Hurricane Irma relief, and Jennifer Santo was deployed to Georgia to also help with Hurricane Irma relief.