Monday, February 19, 2018

Longview man works as FEMA subcontractor in devastated Puerto Rico after Maria

By Glenn Evans
Jan. 3, 2018 at 12:05 a.m.
Updated Jan. 3, 2018 at 11:04 a.m.

Drew Corbitt said he hopes to visit Puerto Rico again. "In spite of all that, it's still the most beautiful place I've ever been," he said.

Drew Corbitt was knee-deep in Hurricane Harvey cleanup when Maria's fury swept the Longview resident from Deep East Texas to Puerto Rico.

He finally got home Friday to his wife, Rachel, and their six children. They went to Pizza King.

On Tuesday, he reflected on his three-month journey with WSP Inspection Services, a subcontractor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Working in Vidor and other Harvey-soaked areas until "the work dried up, no pun intended," Corbitt said he called his wife and his dad when the company asked for volunteers to go to Puerto Rico.

They encouraged him to go help the American territory, which Maria hit with Category 5 hurricane fury Sept. 20.

"It's devastated," Corbitt said, adding the island already was soaked by the middle hurricane of the season, Irma, which skirted Puerto Rico to the north on Sept. 7.

"A lot of the people I dealt with had been without power and water since Irma," he said. "When I first got there, the trees — almost all of the leaves had blown off the trunks."

After living briefly aboard the Massachusetts Maritime Academy training ship, Kennedy, Corbitt found an Airbnb room in the capital of San Juan and settled in. His duties entailed connecting residents with the help that was arriving.

"A lot of what this was, was customer service," he said. "I was dealing with all these people who were in crisis."

Residents are buying ice daily, at $7 a bag, trying to keep food — and medicines — from spoiling.

The fact Maria's target is an island only complicated relief efforts.

"With Harvey, there were a lot of surrounding areas," he said. "They could bring in equipment; they could bring in men. But, when you talk about an island, it's a logistical challenge."

With the power distribution network 100 percent damaged, the help couldn't come soon enough. It's only now making its way beyond San Juan.

"It's getting out," Corbitt said. "It's not getting there as quickly as we want to see it happen. Those are American citizens that don't have power. But some are in the mountains. In some cases, you're having to run miles of power lines up a mountainside to restore power to 12 people. I think more attention could be given, more needs to be given. But you also have to keep in mind it's not as simple as we would like it to be."

The island's natural beauty stood out, though, across the harried landscape.

"Even pictures you take of it — just the scenery, it's indescribable," he said. "The people were great. They were fantastic. They were friendly. They have a sense of humor about it, which is beautiful. In spite of all that, it's still the most beautiful place I've ever been."

The people of Puerto Rico largely missed the Twitter spat between President Donald Trump and San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz, who called the president the Disaster in Chief. They are more focused, Corbitt said, on the local politics surrounding aid distribution.

"All of the money that's in Puerto Rico seems to be held at the top," Corbitt said. "And it doesn't trickle down to the people at the bottom. There's not a lot of opportunities for people my age and millennials. So that corruption at the top. What I was hearing over and over from my applicants was that they needed tarps."

So he snatched 10 tarps from the convention center in San Juan.

"And as people needed them, I would hand them out," he said. "The very last house I was in was one of the hardest-hit homes that I'd been in while I was there. The whole roof had been torn off, which was not uncommon. A whole exterior wall had been torn off. You don't get used to seeing people's things, their entire lives, just piled up in their living room."

One college student did bring up politics, and Corbitt said a conversation about the electoral college ensued.

"He was trying to understand Trump and understand the American people and if most Americans agreed with a lot of the things that Trump said," he said. "They were offended that Trump came and threw paper towels at them."

Corbitt said he hopes to see the island again.

"I'd love to go back and actually spend some time as a tourist," he said. "I'd watch on Facebook, people posting how cold it is, and I'm wearing shorts outside."



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