Rescuers respond to TSA officer’s call for help after Hurricane Fiona pounds Puerto Rico

Friday, October 14, 2022
Group photo

TSA AFSD-Law Enforcement Brad Felling recalled memories of Hurricane Maria devastating Puerto Rico five years ago, as news came that the impeding tropical storm Fiona had evolved into a hurricane. Weather forecasters predicted the storm to be strong, but it wasn’t until the last minute when Fiona’s true power was revealed.

“We were under the impression, as I think a lot of people were, that tropical storm Fiona was going to pass to the south of us and that we were just going to have a significant rain event,” said Felling. “We underestimated the storm’s track. … We all underestimated the possibility that the storm could turn into a hurricane, which it did.”

Destruction in PR photo
Destruction seen across the island. (Photo courtesy of Joy Martinez)

Weather data showed southern Puerto Rico was hit with a total of 12 to 20 inches of rain, while northern Puerto Rico saw 4 to 12 inches, with as much as 20 inches in some areas.

TSA Intelligence & Analysis Field Intelligence Officer Jose “Joy” Martinez, AFSD-Inspections Elizabeth Dominguez, Felling and their teams experienced the devastation and destruction firsthand.

“The entire territory lost power and water, and the damages are catastrophic in the south. In the north, we are operating fine. We lost power and water for about a week,” Martinez said. “But, we still have employees in the south where they lost everything, and their houses are flooded.”
Martinez, Dominguez, and Felling met with emergency support function liaisons at the Federal Emergency Management Agency Joint Operations Center when they received a distress call from the Coordination Center. 

TSA Officer Celedith Gonzalez, assigned to Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, needed immediate help. Her home in the Caguas Mountains was in the direct path of the storm and experienced more than 30 inches of rain.

Destroyed roadway photo
The destroyed roadway leading up the mountain toward the Gonzalez’s home. (Photo provided by Joy Martinez)

The heavy flash flooding left Gonzalez and her family, including her two elderly parents, stranded with no food, water, or fuel for their generator or access to necessary medications.

Martinez, Dominguez, and Felling sprang into action, knowing the hurdles they were about to face.

Felling described Gonzalez’s plight. “Her house is in the remote part of the Caguas Mountains, and it is almost on top of the mountain. A flash flood occurred from the top of the mountain and washed away the ground level of her family's home,” he said. “It also washed away the roadway, which is treacherous on a good day. The flood totally washed away the road to get up and down the mountain.”

Puerto Rico police provided critical assistance, guiding the TSA team by car toward the mountain. They trekked past collapsed bridges and municipal roads that were destroyed.

Car in kitchen photo
The Gonzalez family car slammed through their first floor kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Joy Martinez)

“They escorted our vehicles all the way up there through the most difficult roads that I've seen in my life,” said Martinez. “It was like a combat zone. Everything was destroyed. Every single road was completely washed away.”

After an hour drive, the group stopped about a quarter-mile away from her house. The only road leading to the Gonzalez’s home was washed away. A flooded river stood in their path.

The team abandoned their vehicles and walked the rest of the way.

 The ground level of the house sustained severe water damage. The family’s car was perched in the middle of the kitchen. 

Rescuers found the family healthy but in dire need of assistance. The group slowly made their way back down the mountain. In stages, Gonzalez’s mother had to be carried down.

“After we pulled the entire family through the river with their backpacks, we put them in the vehicle and got them out of that mess.” Martinez said. “We took them an hour away to a Burger King to have their first hot meal in three days.”

Hurricane Fiona’s destruction is still seen across the island. The Gonzalez family only recovered a few items and, like many other citizens, face a long recovery ahead.

The Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget enacted the Emergency Leave Transfer Program (ELTP) after assessing the impact of Hurricane Fiona on employees. Employees impacted by Hurricane Fiona can apply to ELTP by submitting OPM Form 1637, Application to Become a Leave Recipient Under the ELTP. Employees who want to donate leave must submit OPM Form 1638, Request to Donate Annual Leave Under the ELTP. More information about ELTP is available on the OPM website.

By Kimberlyn Pepe, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs