Hixson Volunteer Pilot Surveys Puerto Rico And U. S. Virgin Islands

Friday, October 13, 2017
CAP members in Puerto Rico: Maj. William Reed, Lt. Col. Hector Alicea, Lt. Col. Brady Rogers, Maj. Rob Borsari, Maj. Steven Askew, Capt. Deming Gray, Capt. Art Stoutenberg, Maj. Richard Morell, Capt. Luis Herrera, and Lt. Col. Ande Boyer
CAP members in Puerto Rico: Maj. William Reed, Lt. Col. Hector Alicea, Lt. Col. Brady Rogers, Maj. Rob Borsari, Maj. Steven Askew, Capt. Deming Gray, Capt. Art Stoutenberg, Maj. Richard Morell, Capt. Luis Herrera, and Lt. Col. Ande Boyer

Deming Gray, Hixson-based professional photographer and volunteer for the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), answered the call to service when he received the request to report for duty in Puerto Rico. Even before he landed in San Juan, he could see the extent of damage done by hurricanes Irma and Maria was vast.

He reported to the Incident Commander, Lt. Col. Ande Boyer at the Incident Command Center, which was located in a closet at one of the San Juan hospitals. There wasn’t a lot of room, but he said they were all thankful to have electricity, air-conditioning, and access to the Internet, especially considering that 84% of the island is reported to not have electricity restored yet.

Capt. Gray said, “This was a real team effort in Puerto Rico.  We had CAP members from Tennessee, Alabama and Puerto Rico serving with us.  Additionally, we utilized CAP members stateside to help form a virtual Incident Command Post.  We were not alone in Puerto Rico, CAP members everywhere were willing and able to assist us as needed. We had five aircraft that we tasked daily to conduct photographic reconnaissance of the island of Puerto Rico.”

Civil Air Patrol (CAP), an official auxiliary of the U. S Air Force, is known for conducting 90% of the nation’s inland search and rescue when planes go down unexpectedly. Increasingly, CAP has also been working for governmental agencies.  For example, this assignment was tasked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Capt. Gray says that he flew about 30 hours during his week there, which is a lot of time in a small aircraft.  He was tasked to fly one sortie (each flight is called a sortie) in the back seat as Mission Scanner and Airborne Photographer.  On a second sortie, he was assigned the role of Mission Observer, tasked to assist the pilot and assist the successful execution of the mission from the right seat.

The remainder of his flights last week were flown from the left seat as Mission Pilot. FEMA had tasked their sorties to fly around the island of Puerto Rico, and the U. S. Virgin Islands, to photographically document and assess storm damage to structures and infrastructure, search for individuals and communities in need of help, and monitor situations that might lead to additional loss of life or property.

Capt. Gray said, “Everywhere we flew, we saw horrific damage from the fierce winds of hurricane Maria. On all the islands, we saw power lines down everywhere.”  He continued, “We saw many powerline towers down, which means extensive work required just to restore electrical power.  The damage done to houses and buildings on the islands was extensive.”

“For example, on one sortie, we identified one small town that was completely isolated, due to a bridge being washed out on one end of town, and a mudslide covering the road on the other.  We found folks who had painted messages on roofs and parking lots, requesting food, water, or other immediate needs.”

Capt. Gray was one of ten CAP members from the Tennessee Wing, who took thousands of photographs as requested by FEMA.  He says that the photographs were being utilized to assess damage and prioritize resources.

Capt. Gray, who serves as the Group II Commander for the Tennessee Wing said that, “As members of the Civil Air Patrol, we regularly train and practice our skills during SAREX’s (Search and Rescue Exercises), but this was not a training exercise. When we hit the ground, we were expected to perform. There was no time to train on how to accomplish our tasks. We were tasked to accomplish our mission, and we set out to do it.

The aircrew was tasked daily to take digital photographs of the dams on the island, due to concerns of potential dam failure, which continues to be an immediate concern.  Capt. Gray said, “We awoke at 5 am, and got to work as soon as we could.  At the end of a long day, we returned to our rooms and crashed.

“CAP is unofficially referred to as ‘America’s Best Kept Secret’” Capt. Gray continued, “However, there were three different times during the week, talking to people around the area or in the hotel’s elevator, when FEMA or military officials recognized my CAP uniform and expressed extreme gratitude for the work that Civil Air Patrol was accomplishing. It makes you realize that all the training we have done can actually be put to work and we can deliver a service and product that has real value.”

“It was very satisfying,” he said. “It was a hard week, but I’m so glad that I went, and felt privileged to have the opportunity to serve our country in this way.”

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