After Hurricane Irma devastated several islands in the Caribbean, leaving thousands homeless, Jefferson City Fire Department Chief Matt Schofield worked for almost two weeks to help those in need.
Schofield was deployed by the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force on Sept. 4 and operated as an IST division supervisor for the Virgin Islands St. John and St. Thomas. He worked with three teams — the Virginia Task Force 1 and 2 from Fairfax and Virginia Beach and a Human Remains Detection Team from Missouri — along with forestry protection resources from the FBI and United States Forest Service.
Schofield, who returned home Sunday night, reached Puerto Rico on Sept. 5 and waited for Category 5 Hurricane Irma to pass. He said his team wanted to be pre-positioned for urban search and rescue missions in St. Thomas and St. John.
The teams talked with neighbors and locals to determine who was missing or trapped in homes, then tried to evacuate or rescue individuals. Schofield said the island did not have an airport and the port was closed for a few days, so several people could not get off the island unless it was by helicopter.
Schofield said it was hard to say how many search and rescues they did between the two islands because the rescues were ongoing.
Schofield — who has been with FEMA Urban Search and Rescue for 21 years and been federally deployed about 15 times — said when he got to St. John, he was surprised by the level of devastation.
"Normally it's beautiful; it's a lush rain forest. After Hurricane Irma, every leaf from every tree was stripped clean, so it was a desolate, barren wasteland after the hurricane went through," he said. "For me, the most similar comparison would have been the Joplin tornado. It was just as much, if not worse, devastation as the Joplin tornado but on an entire island."
Schofield was in St. John for six days and St. Thomas for about two days. He said St. John had a short supply of water, no working toilets, only a few power generators and several destroyed buildings.
"Every building was impacted, from what I saw," he said. "I did not see any buildings that weren't somehow compromised, which makes us very concerned for the folks with this next storm coming in because they're already impacted, crippled and now they have another storm barring down on them.
"There are very few places they can go to get shelter. I just hope they can take care of themselves through this new storm. That would truly take a bad situation and just make it so much worse."
Hurricane Maria became a category 4 hurricane Monday afternoon as it grew closer to the Caribbean islands. Schofield said the buildings that are still standing have water, mold and mildew in them, and that trash services and basic sanitation was not occurring, so residents have to worry about hygiene issues too.
Schofield said even though he came back to Jefferson City, there are still teams positioned in Puerto Rico, ready to help after Hurricane Maria hits. Schofield came back early to attend a funeral visitation for Chris Bosche, a medical team manager for Missouri Task Force 1 — an urban search and rescue team.
The teams did not just do urban search and rescues while in St. John and St. Thomas. They also direct resources and supplies, follow-up with hospital patients and provide some transportation and communication.
The island also did not have internet, landline or cellphone reception, and the satellite phones the teams were using did not work well.
"There was a clinic on St. John that needed some assistance and medication, so we were able to get that list transmitted with our satellite phones and actually left some of the supplies we brought with us with them, knowing they needed it more and that we could resupply when we got back to the United States," Schofield said.
Schofield said he believes St. John residents will eventually rebuild, but it will be a long, difficult road, especially if the island is severely impacted by Hurricane Maria.
He recommended those interested in helping can volunteer for hurricane relief efforts through their churches or donate and volunteer with the American Red Cross or The Salvation Army.