This article will run in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 1, 2018.
By: Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Harclerode, District 1 Public Affairs South
The 2017 hurricane season led to a major activation of the Coast Guard Reserve, and reservists from all over the country left their family behind to answer the call. For some though, the hurricane came right to their front door.
Both first class petty officers in the Coast Guard, Sara and Bert Romero moved to Ramrod Key, Fla., in August from New York. The Romeros and their 18-month-old son Myles got the keys to their home, along with their household goods on Aug. 9. Bert, an active duty machinery technician, transferred from Coast Guard Sector New York to Sector Key West, while Sara took a reserve PA billet and stayed home with Myles. Also moving with them was Sara’s in-laws and their cat.
Eighteen days later, Sara was activated Aug. 27 in response to Hurricane Harvey. She had only the afternoon to pack and take care of outstanding bills and other personal affairs. She flew out that same night to Mobile, Ala., where she was assigned to be the public affairs logistical coordinator. She would receive the public affairs specialists that were activated for Harvey from all over the country and ensure they got to the correct locations. All the PAs were flown to their area of operations on Coast Guard flights. Sara met with Operations to find out where each flight was going, when they were leaving, verify if there was room for PAs, and get them on the correct flights – coordinating travel and logistics for as many as 16 people in one day.
While Sara was in Mobile, she covered events at Air Station Clearwater, Fla. She ran the social media accounts, escorted local and national media and published news releases. “I have never in my life seen an operation handled so beautifully,” Sara said.”
While she was deployed for Harvey, her husband Bert was doing his daily Coast Guard duties at Sector Key West, and Sara’s in-laws were watching their son. She found out news that would alter her deployment.
“I was just getting into my groove, and then Irma hit.” Sara said. “Members in District Seven became a main priority and concern.”
Sara’s orders were cancelled because Hurricane Irma was predicted to affect the Florida Keys, where Sara had just moved earlier in the month. She flew home Sept. 5 early in the morning. Sara and Bert needed to decide whether Bert would go with the family to Tampa Bay to wait out the storm, or if he was going to respond to the storm himself and move Coast Guard Sector Key West assets to St. Petersburg, Fla., and back to Sector Key West after the storm.
“I told Bert that he had a job to do and that I could handle it,” Sara said. “I told him that I will make sure we are safe. It was a very hard decision, but I took my 14 years of experience and put them to use.”
Sara and Bert had one day to prepare their home to be hit by Hurricane Irma. Their stuff was still in boxes from when their household goods arrived less than a month earlier. Sara prepped the inside of their home, locating important documents and moving belongings to the highest floor, while Bert prepped the outside, putting up hurricane shutters. The next day was a mandatory Coast Guard dependent evacuation, and Sara received dependent activation orders. Sara, baby Myles, Bert’s parents and the cat traveled to Tampa Bay to her aunt’s house, while Bert transported the Coast Guard boats and stayed in a hotel room in St. Petersburg, where they would both wait out the storm respectively.
After Irma passed through the Florida Keys, Bert moved back to their house. He found the siding ripped off the house, windows in the street, parts of the roof completely ripped off and missing, and the downstairs storage was filled with six-inches of muck. There were boats from another Key in the canal behind their home.
At this time in late-September, Sara’s dependent evacuation orders were lifted. She was issued Title 14 orders to respond to Hurricane Irma as the supervisor for Public Affairs Detachment St. Petersburg.
Sara moved to a hotel room in Clearwater with her family while Bert stayed at their home in Ramrod Key, clearing moldy drywall and scooping muck from their downstairs. He was clearing mailboxes from the yard that belonged to homes three miles away. The construction crew that was working on their home was also sleeping there, because there were no hotel rooms available.
Meanwhile, Sara reported to PADET St. Pete, where she handled not only the everyday search and rescue cases for St. Petersburg, but also took on the increased media queries and general questions related to Hurricane Irma for Air Station Clearwater. She shot photos and video, sent out press releases and accommodated interviews. “Planes were constantly handling supplies and Coast Guard families were being offloaded at Air Station Clearwater,” Sara said. “I have not experienced displaced Coast Guard families before, and here I was one myself.”
She was thrust into a new role – she’d never stood duty before, and now the calls were constant.
In early November, her orders were up and it was finally deemed safe enough for Sara, her son, her in-laws and her cat to return home. She had seen Bert a total of three days since the hurricanes hit.
“It was a very trying time for our family and for our marriage,” Sara said. “Just going through a hurricane in general is extremely difficult. I am blessed, because I have such a great support structure around me. I couldn’t have handled the relief efforts if my husband wasn’t taking care of the home and my in-laws weren’t taking care of Myles. Also, it’s really hard to feel helpful when you’re helpless – when you have no home to go home to and you’re not with your family – but other people still had it worse.”
In addition to the support of her family, Sara said she appreciated the behind-the-scenes view of the coordination it takes to support the responders who do the hands-on work in crisis response.
“There's more to a response then the disaster zone. There’s so many logistical aspects to a disaster response that both the external and internal audience take for granted because they don’t see it.”
Chief Petty Officer Michael Bazzrea and Sector Houston-Galveston Law Enforcement team take a selfie while deployed to St. Thomas for hurricane relief.
Sector Houston-Galveston LE team hitch a ride back to the Caribbean on a Coast Guard C-130.