Springfield Guard unit’s hurricane relief efforts aided 105K

A group of Springfield-based National Guard members helped stabilize communication capabilities in the U.S. Virgin islands after two hurricanes tore through the Caribbean but it may still be years before the islands fully recover.

Six airmen from Springfield’s 269th Combat Communications Squadron spent about a month on St. Thomas beginning in September, tasked with providing communication capabilities for the island, which had been lashed first by Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria.

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Along with a second detachment of airmen who provided relief, local guard members assisted an effort that brought aid to more than 105,000 people in the Virgin Islands, said Maj. Craig Conner, detachment commander for the squadron.

The airmen specialize in providing communications services including phone and Internet services, which are needed by first responders and government agencies to communicate in the wake of disasters. Before the end of the deployment, the Springfield unit extended communication services to 21 agencies, resulting in $35 million in federal assistance to the island, Conner said.

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Their efforts also assisted with communication for evacuation efforts, he said, allowing for the rescue of more than 3,500 injured and needy citizens.

Conner recounted their mission at a Springfield Rotary Club meeting Monday, highlighting obstacles that included limited available shelter, sweltering weather and plans that often had to change in a moment’s notice. Soon after they arrived on St. Thomas to assist with the recovery from Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria swept through and battered the island a second time.

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While other agencies were forced to evacuate the island during Hurricane Maria, Conner said he was faced with the difficult decision of weighing his unit’s safety while assisting efforts to stabilize communication after the second storm. Ultimately, the unit had adequate food and water and believed their building would survive Hurricane Maria.

“The only question was would our equipment survive but we wanted to be able to bring up services right away,” Conner said.

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Conner displayed photos and a short video that showed heavy winds peeling back the roof of a local government building where they were sleeping. He also showed how the storms had begun to crack the building’s bulletproof glass.

One of the biggest challenges, he said, was developing the right contacts to assess what work needed to be done and how best to do it. That meant relying on assistance from other rescue agencies, local politicians and often island residents.

One of those residents who proved most helpful was the building’s custodian, a 39-year-old named Kevin Mills who is now trying to join the National Guard, Conner said.

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“The best intel reports we ever got were from Kevin … That guy worked tirelessly,” he said. “We had no water in the building. The toilets had water in them because he brought buckets of water. This guy would go up three stories and pour water in a toilet so it could flush. I’ve never seen a guy work harder than this guy.”

Despite the difficult conditions, Conner said the local Guard members never complained. Since they have returned home, power has been restored to about 90 percent of St, Thomas and nearby St. John has made significant progress, Conner said. But it will be years before the islands fully recover, he said.

“The beautiful thing is many of these folks are still staying in touch with us today so I know they’re making progress down there,” Conner said.

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