Major Matt Ferris gazes down from the cockpit of his Air National Guard C-130 aircraft and scarcely recognizes the hurricane-ravaged wasteland below as Puerto Rico.
‘Wow, there’s a building down there that’s completely demolished. There’s not a single leaf left on any of the trees,’ the 37-year-old pilot tells DailyMail.com.
‘This place has taken a hell of a hit. Short of living in a bunker I’m not sure how you can possible prepare for this.’
Flight engineer Drew Peterson, 29, has served in Afghanistan but says that in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria the stricken US commonwealth looks as bleak as anything he’s seen.
‘I remember before when this was all lush rainforest. It’s depressing and sad to see Puerto Rico like this. But hopefully they will rebuild. That’s why we’re here, to do what we can to help.’
DailyMail.com joined Major Ferris and six Nevada Air National Guard colleagues from the 152ndAirlift Wing, known as the High Rollers, as they flew in military personnel and supplies to Puerto Rico’s storm-ravaged capital, San Juan.
Scene of destruction: From the flight deck of the C-130 on its way to San Juan, the devastation of Puerto Rico is laid bare. Houses have had their roofs ripped off, tress felled, and power lines and cell towers damaged
Landslide: The side of what appears to be a landfill site has become a mudslide, one of many which have devastated the island
Fuel line: The lack of gas stations has left drivers stranded in long lines waiting like this one on the outskirts of San Juan
Roadblock: Transport on the island has been hit not just by gas shortages but by blockages from downed trees.
Economic chaos: Agriculture on the island has been badly hit with crops downed (bottom) and farm properties ripped apart
Congestion and chaos: As a line forms for gas, devastated houses in the foreground show just how much damage was done to Puerto Rico
Torrent: The mud in a river outside San Juan shows the destructive power of the torrential rain which fell
Help is here: The Nevada Air National Guard C-130 – nicknamed the Oche for its number 8 – gets ready for the round trip to Puerto Rico loaded full of aid and military communications specialists
View from the flightdeck: Flight engineer Drew Peterson,who has served in Afghanistan, said: ‘I remember before when this was all lush rainforest. It’s depressing and sad to see Puerto Rico like this. But hopefully they will rebuild.’
Loaded: Senior Airman Ezra Johnson, 37, of San Luis Obispo, California, is on the C-130 mission. He and Senior Airman Nick Edis, 32, a deputy sheriff based out of Washoe County, Nevada, are loadmasters for the giant cargo-carrier
The seven-hour round-trip was one of more than a dozen sorties being flown out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, on Wednesday as the US ramped up relief efforts to avoid a deadly humanitarian crisis one week after Maria slammed the Caribbean island.
The majority of Puerto Rico remains without power, clean drinking water, phone signal or security with residents enduring primitive conditions, the threat of looting and stifling heat.
All but two members of the C-130’s crew are volunteers who juggle their training and flying missions with demanding day jobs as cops, firefighters and commercial airline pilots.
‘The predictions for Maria were for a tropical storm but it escalated in a matter of days into a huge hurricane,’ says co-pilot Lieutenant Kevin Porter, a 32-year-old civil engineer from Bakersfield, California.
‘We don’t know too much more about what’s happening on the island other than what we’re seeing on the news, same as you guys.
‘But people are suffering there and we are itching to help them as much as we can.’
The Reno-based crew witnessed the power of Mother Nature first-hand while completing aid missions in Puerto Rico, St Martin and St Croix in the US Virgin Islands in the brief respite between hurricanes Irma and Maria.
In St Martin the team airlifted to safety 27 marooned military personal and civilians, including an elderly woman in a wheelchair.
‘She was doing good after we got her out of there, she shook our hands and was very appreciative,’ said Senior Airman Nick Edis, 32, a deputy sheriff based out of Washoe County, Nevada.
Devastation: Trees have been toppled across the island, where 97 per cent of people are still without mains power supplies
Direct hit: Debris is strewn across one hillside in Puerto Rico – just one of the places where the hurricane has led to massive destruction
Mission to rebuild: Puerto Rico will have to come back from the destruction. The ‘High Rollers’, the crew of C-130, itself nicknamed Oche, are at the cutting edge of the mission
Infrastructure hit: Industry on the island has been left devastated by the hurricane, including this fuel depot
Hope amid the chaos: Some areas of Puerto Rico have survived, including this resort, but without power and running water on much of the island, its tourist economy is devastated too
Ready for action: Military vehicles have begin arriving in Puerto Rico including a Humvee loaded with equipment to help the relief effort
Badly hit too: San Juan airport itself was hit by the hurricane. Relief flights are landing to buildings with blown out windows and debris hanging from walls
‘This plane is capable of carrying passengers or cargo, it can be turned into a mobile hospital. The challenge for us is not knowing what we’re facing and trying to work it out on the fly – adapt and overcome.’
Edis and his fellow loadmaster, Senior Airman Ezra Johnson, 37, are responsible for calculating the weight and center of gravity that allows the c-130 aircraft to climb despite a payload nudging 155,000 lbs – the maximum gross weight allowed on peace-time missions.
Along with three huge palates of food and water, they are also giving a ride to a six-member team from the US military’s Joint Communication Support Element (JCSE) who will scramble to build a satellite wi-fi network in the coming days for first responders and families desperate to contact loved ones.
With 97 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million inhabitants without power and cell phone towers toppled across the island, communication with the mainland US is impossible for most.
Air Force Technical Sergeant Eric Dagin told DailyMail.com the crack unit of tech experts assembled from across the different Armed Forces can set up a functioning network in virtually any environment.
‘We can deploy anywhere in the world at short notice. You could drop us off in the middle of the rainforest and we can get things set up,’ said the father-of-two from Beaufort, South Carolina.
‘We’re going to be out here as long as it takes, they haven’t given us a time frame. We hope to put a lot of families in touch with their loves so they can at least tell them they’re ok.’
At a cruising altitude of 21,000 feet the C-130, in this case a 1993 H3 model nicknamed the Oche because of large number 8 on its tail designating its use in fighting wildfires, takes about three hours to reach Puerto Rican airspace.
High rollers: Nevada Air National Guard airmen Nick Ediss, Clayton Brown, Jeff Sarkis, Drew Peterson and Ezra Johnson get ready to go
On the flight deck: Flight engineer Sgt Drew Peterson and co-pilot Lt Kevin Porter helped bring the C-130 into San Juan
Specialist help: A team from the Joint Communication Support Element was part of the crucial cargo flight’s payload. They will set up phone and wifi networks on the stricken island
Relief: Aid on board the C-130 will was just part of its payload. The plane was at maximum peacetime capacity for the flight
Ready to go: Brandon Knapp, Eric Dagin, Steven Jones, Justin Bowman and Chris Abacon, of the Joint Communications Support Element, had their tent up and began working on building wifi and phone networks minutes after landing
As the $36million aircraft descends though the clouds the scale of the damage to the island’s rural southern coast loom large, with once vibrant towns and villages now resembling dirty slums with roofs torn off buildings and roads choked with felled trees and debris.
Circling towards the east, the plane flies over flooded power stations and an abandoned wind farm, the huge turbines offline and motionless just when they are needed most.
As the flight touches down minutes later in San Juan International Airport it’s clear the island’s key transport hub has sustained massive damage, with sheets of metal dangling from hangers and fascias torn from terminal buildings.
The Air National Guard offload their cargo through the rear doors in a matter of minutes, as their passengers from the JCSE disembark and set up shop in a tent beside the airstrip.
Major Ferris and his team are lightly armed but don’t expect the lawlessness and looting that has reportedly afflicted the island to reach them inside a military zone operated by the Puerto Rico National Guard.
‘Looters prey on the weak. They are not going to attack the military, they don’t want to work any harder than they have to,’ adds Ferris, a Texas native and commercial pilot with Southwest Airlines.
‘Most people who come out to the plane are desperate, they want help.’
The six-man crew of the Oche are due to return to Reno after this mission but will return at the first opportunity they get to volunteer again for a federal hurricane relief assignment with the US Air Mobility Command.
For Air Force veteran Clayton Brown, 34, a full-time National Guard navigator it may mean another long spell away from his four-month-old son Holden, and wife of two years, Rachel, 34.
‘She misses me, she has to be a single mom while I’m gone,’ he says. ‘But she understands that I’m away trying to do good here for the people who need it the most.’