Itâ€™s three hours away from the Nutmeg State and it is a U.S. territory, but Connecticut State Police have established a presence on the streets of the island where they are helping to serve and protect the residents.
On Nov. 27, 13 state troopers packed their bags and said good-bye to their loved ones after Gov. Dannel Malloy deployed them to Puerto Rico to help with restoration efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
â€śI really didnâ€™t know what to expect,â€ť State Police Sgt. Alex Giannone of Berlin told The Herald during a phone conversation Monday from Puerto Rico. â€śI knew it was a disaster but I didnâ€™t know it was like this.â€ť
In addition to his state police duties that heâ€™s served for over 10 years, Giannone, a husband and father of two, was elected to serve on the Berlin Town Council in November. He said he is conversationally fluent in Spanish, and his team of fully fluent Spanish speakers are stationed in Humacao, Puerto Rico, which is on the southeast coast of the island.
With a population of more than 58,000, the area was one of the first hit by the Category 5 hurricane in late September. A majority of the island was still without power on Nov. 30.
â€śThe roads are narrow, telephone poles are down, wires are hanging in the street,â€ť said Giannone. He said stores are closed and the few that are open are running on generators. Buildings are unrecognizable with roofs peeled back like a potato or tin can and potable water is scarce but desperately needed, he said.
During the storm, Giannone said a resident told him people gathered in a stadium for protection and at first heard brief moments of whistling, similar to a train, when the storm was approaching. But once the storm hit the whistling was constant before water flooded up to their heads. He said he heard the story of a man with his family unsuccessfully trying to huddle under an overturned refrigerator for protection, forcing them to break into someone elseâ€™s two story home to climb to the roof for safety as water rose around them.
â€śEveryday weâ€™re asking, whatâ€™s the priority, and that changes,â€ť said Giannone of his team that are on their feet 12 to 15 hours a day under the hot sun. That includes teaming up with the New Hampshire State Police to secure the site of and delivery of generators to a mental hospital that a security team abandoned because they werenâ€™t being paid.
The trooper told The Herald that one mission also included a trip into a neighborhood in need of renovation where tensions were high between the authorities and the residents.
Primarily though, the Connecticut State Police are monitoring and directing traffic through intersections where signals are not working and providing cleanup of damaged sites. The group is also delivering meals and water to Puerto Ricans.
He said missions are sometimes carried out in what are called â€śdisaster zones,â€ť meaning areas are declared inhabitable and anyone who stays in them are left on their own. But some of the residents are unable to leave on their own, he said.
The missions come at the request of the Puerto Rican police, FEMA and other locals asking for help. â€śThereâ€™s so much to do here,â€ť said Giannone.
By in large, he said, heâ€™s â€śastoundedâ€ť at how friendly and resilient the locals are, despite not having power, or hot water for showers.
â€śPeople will drive into the middle of an intersection to hand us water,â€ť said Giannone,. â€śThatâ€™s something they donâ€™t have enough of (themselves).â€ť
Giannone said his team is working on getting local police hats to fit in more and praised the teamwork of the visiting troopers as well.
â€śThis is why you get into public service,â€ť he said. â€śNot a single guy has complained while carrying out the missions.â€ť
As for life back home, Giannone said his team gets a few minutes prior to 6 a.m. roll call at the police station, before the power is shut off for a couple hours, to check email and deal with personal matters, such as his responsibilities as a Town Council member in Berlin and keeping in touch with his family.
â€śI wouldnâ€™t be able to do anything without (my wife),â€ť said Giannone. â€śSheâ€™s a lot stronger than me I think.â€ť
Along with the New Hampshire State Police, the Connecticut State Police are also joined by officers from Las Cruces, New Mexico and the Florida Highway Patrol and state police from Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.
Giannone and his group are expected to return to Connecticut on Dec. 14.
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or firstname.lastname@example.org . On Twitter: @CPaullinNBH