If the people of the Puerto Rican city of Caguas need to find the police in coming weeks and maybe months, they will have to go to a car repair garage. The police station where dozens of officers worked before the building was wrecked by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20 has been moved into a makeshift, open-air office in the area where mechanics used to fix the local police cruisers.
The station in the San Juan suburb is one of hundreds of critical structures being evaluated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local authorities to get the devastated U.S. territory of 3.4 million people back on its feet. The roads around the station are littered with telephone poles snapped like breadsticks by Maria, the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in 90 years. The shell that was once this bustling community’s police station provides a glimpse of the challenges facing islanders who can hardly fathom the mammoth rebuilding job ahead of them, with electricity and other basic services not likely to be restored for weeks.
Next to the now dormant car lifts once used to get mechanics under police cruisers for repair, officers in Caguas’ tiny new station have put a desk and office chairs on the concrete floor, with the emblem of the island’s national police force placed on the office’s one full-length wall. “It’s what we have left,” says the officer manning the station while other members of the department are out directing traffic at intersections in town that, as in the rest of the island, have no stoplights due to lack of electricity.
The sprawling building that once housed the station is filled with rubble and chunks of the building’s collapsed roof. A three-member team of Corps engineers evaluated the scene on Sunday, and agreed the station will probably have to be leveled before it can be rebuilt. Meanwhile, it is their job to help Puerto Rican authorities and FEMA come up with a functional office space for the police to carry out their work. The engineers are among the 150-person-strong deployment by the Corps to the island over the last 10 days, with hundreds more expected over the months ahead.
The Corps’ effectiveness could help the Trump administration overcome criticism that the U.S. response to the island has been too slow. And helping to re-establish a power grid downed nearly in its entirety will be central to their success. “It’s a matter of months, not days or weeks before the grid is completely restored,” Colonel James DeLapp, commander of the Corps’ field office in Puerto Rico, told Reuters.
The mission has started with providing spot electrical generation for critical facilities like hospitals, fire stations and police stations. The next step will be to power up current sub-stations to get portions of the island’s grid operating. They will then reinstall and repair transmission lines. The final step will be distribution, which will involve reparation of the telephone polls that were snapped in two by Maria.
“The overall grid isn’t in quite as bad shape as originally reported,” DeLapp said in his San Juan headquarters. “We are still making the final assessments, but it does appear to be better than reported by media sources immediately after the storm.”