John Lopez has been traveling to Puerto Rico since he was a child, making trips with his parents to visit family members. Five years ago, his parents retired to Puerto Rico.
On his most recent trip to the island, Lopez, who is a sergeant in the Howell Police Department, assisted authorities in relief efforts as the island continues its recovery from the devastation that was caused by Hurricane Maria when it made landfall on Sept. 20.
The New Jersey State Police, through the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have been sending bilingual officers to Puerto Rico to help in the recovery efforts.
Lopez was in Puerto Rico from Nov. 4-18. He said about a dozen officers from Monmouth County made the trip. He said his parents are doing OK.
Lopez said that when the officers landed in Puerto Rico, the devastation they observed was worse than they had imagined.
“There was still a large percentage of the population without electricity and water. The first connections we made were with the Puerto Rico Police and in talking to them, a large percentage of them have been working something like 50 days straight. They still did not have water and electricity in their homes. Meanwhile they are working double shifts and kind of neglecting their own families to come to work. It was pretty shocking to see that they have not gotten a break,” Lopez said.
Most of the island’s infrastructure was destroyed by the hurricane and Lopez said his primary assignment was to help direct traffic in the San Juan metropolitan area.
“The traffic lights were nonexistent,” said Lopez, who assisted in San Juan, Bayamón and Caguas. He said residents were “totally receptive” to the New Jersey officers.
“We would be directing traffic at a major intersection and I remember people yelling out the car window, ‘We love you, New Jersey. Thank you.’ So the public was super-receptive and supportive of us being there and helping them,” he said.
Lopez estimated that Puerto Rico may be a year away from returning to a normal existence.
“I do not see them getting back to any type of normalcy just yet. I would say they are six months to a year out, just because there is so much destruction. I did not see what you would expect to see, like all kinds of bucket trucks out, electric companies out (working). You do not see it. The work is just not getting done,” he said.
He compared the mobilization of utility workers he experienced in and around Howell after superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey in 2012 with what he saw in Puerto Rico a month ago.
“We were in Puerto Rico for two weeks and you did not see the mobilization of utility workers you would expect to see after a huge storm. We experienced Sandy and I remember seeing (utility) trucks from Ohio, Texas and Illinois in New Jersey.
“I did not see that mobilization (in Puerto Rico), so as far as the power grid goes, I do not see that getting back to normal because the work is not getting done for whatever reason,” Lopez said.
Lopez said that as he left Puerto Rico, all he could think about was hope.
“Just hope, just hope they rebuild it, and rebuild it better than it was,” he said. “There is still a lot of work to do and I hope the resources they need get there sooner rather than later so they can get back to normal.
“I hope the tons of resources they still need get there because they are far from getting back to normal anytime soon. I hope this does not become a back page story six months from now and people forget, because that island got destroyed.”