San Juan, Puerto Rico - What happens when the lifelines of an island's lifelines fail? After Hurricane Maria passed over Puerto Rico, leaving behind the bare, broken bones of nature and an island without power, at least 51 hospitals were left running on generators.
Blocked roads and silenced phones made communication with help nearly impossible for many medical centers.
Those hospitals became the focus of the Sailors and Marines embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3).
Over the course of four days, teams visited 51 hospitals to solve issues like dwindling fuel reserves, low medical supplies and shortages of fresh water.
Lt. Iris Manso, Kearsarge's medical administration officer, is from Puerto Rico and was on one of the first assessment teams.
"As I flew over the island, it became very, very real to me," said Manso. "To see it in those conditions, to know that my family was somewhere out there living like that -- it was definitely very personal."
Each team found different needs at every hospital. Each person on those five teams had different experiences.
"At one hospital, we were the first people from the military there to help," said Chief Engineman Blake Morton, a member of team four. "When we landed, the hospital staff greeted us and you could see the relief that someone was finally there to help them."
Before any work started, it was the spirits of the hospital workers and patients that had to be restored.
"They thought that all of the aid was going to San Juan - they were completely shut down from the world, basically," Manso said. "I told one person at one of the hospitals that we are assessing the airports; they're going to open any day now. We're assessing the ports and they're going to open any day now. There are ships literally waiting out in the water to bring fuel and supplies, and that made him very emotional."
After they arrived, the responders assessed the situation at each hospital and began planning their next steps.
"In some cases, the teams were able to perform immediate repairs and get broken (or almost broken) generators working," said Capt. David Guluzian, Kearsarge's commanding officer. "In other cases, teams were able to relay a message to responders who could deliver the right assistance."
Forty-nine of the 51 hospitals visited had critical fuel, water, food, oxygen or medical supply needs. After teams from Kearsarge assessed them, all of the hospitals were put at the top of resupply lists, with some getting aid just in time.
"We got a message that one dialysis center had just run out of fuel in their generators and lost power," Morton said. "We were able to route that back through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and within four hours that hospital's power was restored and they were able to put their patients back on dialysis."
Similar stories rang from every corner of Puerto Rico. At every hospital, a need was found and, in one way or another, met. At every hospital, the destruction left by Hurricane Maria was made a little more bearable.
"We had an old man come up and give us a kiss and a hug and thank us," Manso said. "Another lady became very emotional when she heard about the help that was coming. It gave her peace of mind to know that our Marines and Sailors were there to help them."
Although the situation might be better than it was before the teams completed their mission, more help is needed.
"There are still a lot of areas in Puerto Rico that don't have anything right now," Morton said. "A lot of places have nurses and doctors sleeping on cots in the hospitals because they don't have enough gas to go home and make it back to work, and they want to be at the hospitals to help - we're definitely still needed here."
That is the mission of Kearsarge - to stay as long as help is needed. So, what happens when the lifelines of an island's lifelines fail? With Kearsarge off Puerto Rico's coast, the chances of that question being answered grow smaller each day.
Kearsage and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit are assisting with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The Department of Defense is supporting FEMA, the lead federal agency, in helping those affected by Hurricane Maria to minimize suffering and is one component of the overall whole-of-government response effort.