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Northwell team on Puerto Rico visit: ‘Everything was destroyed’

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Randy Howard talks

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Randy Howard talks about leading a volunteer mission to Puerto Rico to provide medical support, on Friday Oct. 27, 2017, at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

For Eddie Reyes, the reality of Hurricane Maria’s effects hit home the minute he touched down in Puerto Rico two weeks ago.

Reyes, 55, a registered nurse and corporate emergency manager, was part of a 27-member volunteer team from Northwell Health that deployed for 14 days on the storm-ravaged island.

Just before he departed for the relief effort, Reyes learned that a 58-year-old cousin living in Coamo, Puerto Rico, had an aneurysm two days before Maria hit and hadn’t been heard from since, he said.

“My family didn’t know where my cousin was,” an emotional Reyes said at a news conference Friday morning at Northwell’s corporate headquarters in New Hyde Park, where he and other volunteers shared their experiences.

As it turns out, Reyes, of Richmond Hills, Queens, found relief while providing relief. His cousin was one of the several dozen patients he encountered at HIMA Hospital San Pablo in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where the Northwell contingent was stationed. Caguas is about 37 miles northeast of Coamo.

They were joined by an eight-member team from Albany Medical Center, working out of tents at what had been the hospital’s Emergency Department entrance. The medical teams provided 24-hour aid to patients — the majority of whom required intensive care.

As of this week, a quarter of households did not have access to drinking water and only about 26 percent of the island had electrical power — more than a month after Maria touched down. HIMA Hospital San Pablo in Caguas is running entirely on generator power, Reyes said. The death toll from the storm has grown to 51, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety.

For Nicolas Hernandez, a doctor at Northwell Health in Plainview who visits the island multiple times a year — including most recently in July for his birthday — Puerto Rico was unrecognizable.

“To see a palm tree completely bare, that’s not something you expect in the Caribbean,” said Hernandez, 37.

The doctor has family 5 to 10 miles outside of Caguas. He’d heard only sparingly from them since Maria blew through, but was able to touch base with them during the deployment.

“It’s very hard to prepare for a disaster of this magnitude,” Hernandez said. “Just seeing how posts were down, traffic lights inverted, everything was destroyed.”

Aside from medical care, the Northwell volunteers said some of the patients they encountered simply needed someone to listen to their plight. Reyes joked that his job title during the deployment was “GWYN” or “go where you’re needed.”

That led him to serve often as a translator and even to act as a makeshift social service worker or FEMA representative. Reyes said he and other volunteers provided patients information on how to apply for FEMA aid.

The apparent level of desperation was what the Northwell team said was most distressing.

“When you wanted to discharge someone, where are you sending them? They have no home,” said Hernandez, of Westbury.

Still, the volunteers said they were overwhelmed by the gratitude expressed by the people of Caguas.

“We were surrounded by scores and scores of people who were buffeted by knowing that Americans were behind them,” said Randy Howard, a retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel and the team leader of the Northwell mission. “They felt they had not been forgotten.”

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