Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2017.

‘A whole lot of good for a whole lot of people in a whole lot of need’

Joe Jardin, an FDNY official and a federal search and rescue specialist, on responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico


Joe Jardin is a deputy chief with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), working in the Safety Command Department as the executive officer to the FDNY chief of safety. Jardin is also a leader of New York Task Force One, one of 28 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue teams spread across the country, which respond to disasters including earthquakes and hurricanes throughout the United States and its territories. Members of New York Task Force One were first dispatched to Puerto Rico for Hurricane Irma; when Hurricane Maria set its sights on the island, Jardin and the rest of his team deployed to the island’s capital, San Juan.

Jardin—a former member of the NFPA Standards Council, a former NFPA staff engineer, and currently chair of the technical committee for NFPA 1700, Guide for Structural Fire Fighting—shared some of his firsthand experiences responding to the storm and the challenges the search and rescue teams faced while carrying out their duties.

While much of what we did probably didn’t fall within the historical core definition of urban search and rescue, these task forces did a whole lot of good for a whole lot of people who were in a whole lot of need.

We had the benefit of sending a team down to Puerto Rico in advance of Irma’s landfall. The role of that team was to find a place to work out of and to coordinate operations for Irma in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They ended up setting up a base of operations at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Juan—it’s a very sturdy structure, it had withstood Category 3 hurricanes, and it has ample generator capacity and a significant reservoir of diesel fuel. They were all set up when it was time for us to come down for Maria.

Maria struck the island as a Category 5 and was headed straight for us. It was a strong Category 4 as it passed over. They were saying wind speeds were projected to be 150, 155 mph with gusts up to 190 mph. We were in what the engineers and safety officers determined to be the safest place in the building, which was in a common area outside of the banquet rooms on the third floor.

We put our helmets on and rode it out. At approximately 4:30 in the morning, we had all of the urban search and rescue members in the hotel report to the third floor. At that time, members on the upper floors reported feeling the building sway from the wind and seeing water in the toilets sloshing around—and this was still an hour or so before the most significant winds arrived. During the peak of the storm, we saw a ceiling in an office near the common area pulsating up and down. There was a brief period when we were extremely concerned, but we soon concluded that we were safe.

The building sustained some damage. The roof got beat up. Parts of the duct work and access panel doors from machine rooms on the roof were ripped off and went flying. It sustained significant water damage. We had water pouring down the stairs and through vertical shafts, and water damaged a number of guest rooms. Otherwise, the building performed well and we all got through it safely.

The task forces got to work the next morning, Thursday. We were able to get the teams out on the roads to do some reconnaissance and build some awareness of the post-storm conditions. Initially, the challenge was access. Flooding created problems with travel over the roads, and there were downed trees and utility poles blocking the streets—it was slow going in the first days. But after that, the primary roads, the main highways, kind of got freed up. We were able to work with [a number of entities from FEMA and Puerto Rico] to develop operational plans to provide reconnaissance and search and rescue efforts on Puerto Rico and also the island of St. Croix.

Aerial shot of the devastation of Hurricane Maria

The devastation wrought by Maria dealt a heavy blow to the island's infrastructure, which complicated response and recovery efforts. Photograph: Newscom

Our job was to go out and determine where people were trapped in structures or as a result of landslides or anything else. We lacked tactical air support. We did finally get a helicopter that was tasked to us for much of the deployment, and that was a significant contribution to our search needs.

In the first 72 to 96 hours, I think the FEMA administrator would tell you that the federal urban search and rescue (US&R) folks on the ground were the exclusive and best source of situational awareness FEMA had. We were able to cover a fair percentage of the island’s geography, but with limits. We were able to quickly travel across those primary roads, but secondary roads were still a challenge, given landslides, flooding, and bridges being out. It took us a while, but we were able to create access to the emergency operations center in each of Puerto Rico’s 12 emergency regions. Eventually, we were able to hit every city, too—78 or 79 cities.

There were two instances, one with a New York task force and one with a California team, that I think were emblematic of what FEMA’s US&R teams accomplished in Puerto Rico. The New York team, in one of its earliest missions, went out to a community called Utuado, in the central mountainous region of the island. It became a challenge for several days. It was an area that had become isolated in part, from what I understand, by a bridge collapse and a mudslide. It was a large community. There was no ability to readily get commodities to the residents, and residents who needed medical assistance couldn’t get out. The team set up a rope line across this fairly wide river that was flowing pretty rapidly, and used a boat to ferry supplies to people who were isolated and also removed folks who needed care. That was a pretty impressive feat.

Joe Jardin meets with Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of Puerto Rico

Jardin meets with Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photograph: Joe Jardin

A day or so later, a California team on the south side of the island came upon a hospital that had run out of diesel for its generator, and the generator had shut down. There were, I believe, four patients being ventilated manually. The hospital’s staffers were using bag-valve masks to keep these people alive, to breathe for them. The team took over the ventilations and called for medical evacuation assistance. That assistance didn’t come very quickly. I think it took five or six hours to get the medevac helicopter to transport those patients. That said, while these guys were manually ventilating the patients, another part of the team was able to get the generator working, so they were able to get the patients back on the mechanical ventilators. Those guys saved some lives for sure.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Newscom