Springfield Guard unit providing communications after hurricanes

A group of airmen from Springfield have spent much of this month on the island of St. Thomas, stabilizing communications as rescuers and government agencies respond to damage caused by two hurricanes.

In all, six airmen from the 269th Combat Communications Squadron were deployed on Sept. 7 to the U.S. Virgin islands, which have been lashed first by Hurricane Irma and more recently, Hurricane Maria. The unit has experience responding to similar disasters, having responded to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans more than a decade ago.

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The airmen specialize in providing communications services including radio and Internet, which can be utilized by first responders and government agencies that have responded to the disaster. With local power infrastructure and communications systems damaged by the storms, the unit was able to provide communications services that have allowed local first responders to communicate, said Capt. Craig Conner, detachment commander for the squadron.

The damage caused by the storms is hard to describe without seeing it first-hand, Conner said.

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“The houses are concrete and steel reinforced so the structures are here most of the time,” he said. “But the roofs are gone, windows are gone and there’s debris everywhere.”

The unit first arrived in St. Croix, then moved on to St. Thomas to assist with the recovery from Hurricane Irma. That storm swept over the island as a Category 5 hurricane, knocking out power, flattening trees and causing significant damage to businesses and homes throughout the island. While they were still assisting with that storm, Hurricane Maria battered the island again.

The unit rode out the storm in a local government building and began immediately working again to reestablish communications services after it passed. The winds sounded like a jumbo jet was flying 10 feet over their heads, he said.

“It was literally deafening,” Conner said. “I have never seen anything like that in my life.”

It’s been rewarding to provide assistance as the islands try to recover, he said. Early in the trip, the airmen slept overnight behind a ticket counter at a local airport. They were told many of the local residents had been without food and water, and provided prepackaged military Meals Ready-to-Eat.

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“It wasn’t much but it was something, Conner said. “From a human perspective it’s wrenching to see what we’re seeing.”

He also credited both the airmen on the scene as well as Guard members in Springfield who have continued to provide assistance with the mission. The mission has been challenging, with little time off and sweltering temperatures.

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“They literally have no days off and we’re eating MRE’s every day,” Conner said. “Their attitude could not be better.”

The unit has extensive experience providing communications support both for major disasters and other major events. The unit was also deployed to provide assistance during Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005, and many of the lessons they learned then are being applied to more recent situations. At that time, the unit arrived with a lot of heavy equipment, but it was difficult to provide communication between the various agencies who responded to that crisis.

Now, the unit travels lighter and can connect numerous entities allowing relief agencies, firefighters, and police to more easily communicate. As agencies on the island repair their own communications, the unit will be able to step back and move on to other tasks, said Amanda Adducchio, commander of the 269th.

She said the current unit will continue to provide assistance, and a fresh group of airmen will travel to the island every few weeks to provide relief until the job is finished.

The unit has also provided service at large public events. Last year, the unit provided communications support at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. More recently members provided assistance at the U.S. Air Force Marathon, where they installed video cameras along the race route to ensure runners were safe, said Capt. Travis Clarkson, of the 269th.

They also provided support for a mobile phone app that runners could download and use to communicate with first responders if they experienced a medical emergency during the race.

The Springfield News-Sun will continue to provide unmatched coverage of the local military and its impact on the region.

By the numbers:

6 — Guard members assigned to mission

40,000 — Estimated federal personnel working in response to Hurricane Irma

578,000 — meals provided by FEMA in St. Thomas and St. John

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency

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