14:18 PM

Ala. Wing's Yarborough Calls Destruction 'So Widespread, It's Hard to Fathom'

'Everything is Devastated': CAP Incident Commander for Hurricane Maria Mission in Puerto Rico

Lt. Col. Andrew Oppmann
Director of Public Affairs
Southeast Region

Lt. Col. Harvey Yarborough is no stranger to emergency services missions. As director of operations for Civil Air Patrol’s Alabama Wing and a mission pilot, he’s seen devastation from the air many times.

But what he witnessed in Puerto Rico, as incident commander for a team of volunteers from the mainland dispatched to aid in Hurricane Maria relief, was beyond the worst he has ever seen.

“It’s so widespread, it’s hard to fathom,” said Yarborough, talking on a telephone line garbled with static.

“I am very accustomed to handling tornado-type responses in Alabama and Georgia, but the difference is that a tornado travels along a fairly narrow path. Here… everything is devastated.

“I see a lot of pain out there and a lot of loss and I do take that very seriously,” he said. “You just don’t want to leave, you want to stay and do everything you can do.”

But a week was all Yarborough and his team of Southeast Region volunteers could give. They returned Sunday after a week flying missions out of San Juan over the Puerto Rico commonwealth and the U.S. Virgin Islands, replaced by a fresh CAP relief crew.

The heartbreaking images they captured for federal relief agencies were muted only by the relentless routine of flying as many missions as they could muster. They flew as many hours each day as were allowed under the restraints of safety and mission parameters.

For Yarborough – a litigation consultant in Gardendale, Alabama, near Birmingham, when he’s not volunteering for CAP – it went like this:

  • Report each morning by 7 a.m. at a room in the basement at Hospital del Hoare, one of the few spots in San Juan with reliable power and good internet access.
  • Launch the day’s first flight by 8 a.m. and cover as much ground as possible with the two planes at his disposal – a number that increased to four by the end of his stint. Sometimes that meant two to four for each aircraft, translating roughly to seven hours a day aloft for each of his four aircrews.
  • Process, tabulate and tag as quickly as possible the aircrews’ hundreds of aerial images for review by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1st Air Force and other government entities.
  • Chow down on an MRE, slang for Meals Ready to Eat, provided by the U.S. Air Force.
  • Sleep.
  • Then, repeat.

“After three days,” Yarborough said, “it felt like three weeks.”

He was dispatched twice to Puerto Rico in September. He arrived first after Hurricane Irma dazed the Caribbean island but devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Even though Puerto Rico experienced considerable damage after Irma, the power was still mostly on and the airport, while grazed, were operational.

So when Col. Barry Melton, Southeast Region commander, asked him to reprise his role as incident commander for Hurricane Maria, Yarborough said he thought he would quickly regain his bearings.

“When we came down for Irma, flying over the Virgin Islands, we were operating on fairly solid turf in Puerto Rico,” he said. “But when we came back, whew, this was not what we left a few days ago.”

For example, the airport Yarborough and his Irma team used was “pretty much destroyed” by Maria, he said.

“You can’t see the scope of the damage from one spot,” Yarborough said. “The average person on the ground cannot see how big this is.”

Yet, what stood out the most to Yarborough was the resilient spirit of the residents of the U.S. territory, particularly the volunteers serving in CAP’s Puerto Rico Wing, part of the Southeast Region.

“These guys were coming to work for CAP every day, for no pay, and their houses have no power, no water and they are struggling with their day jobs and struggling to get enough gas for their cars to drive to come and serve,” he said. “And yet they come in, every day, and fly with us to take pictures of the damage.

“Sure, this is inconvenient to me. But these guys are right in the middle of all of this, and they are still coming to work.”

Desperation and devastation, however, produced innovation. It was up to Yarborough, as incident commander, and Melton to determine how CAP could best serve in the face of stark logistical challenges.

The commanders opted to create a virtual incident command post, made up of mainland CAP volunteers connected to the Puerto Rico operation via the internet, to handle as many aspects of the mission as could be done remotely.

“My planning chief was in Dallas, another mission planner was in Wisconsin,” Yarbrough said. “My quality control and debriefing officer… I don’t know where he is. He’s virtual.

“But, the beauty of this was, as far as I was concerned, they were in the other room from me. Anything that we could handle remotely, I tasked it back to them so we, here in Puerto Rico, could focus on operations.”

That teamwork was crucial to getting the job done, Yarbrough said.

“What really stood out was the unbelievable amount of cooperation and support Civil Air Patrol got as we reached out to others: the Air Force, FEMA, the Air National Guard, the Army Guard.

“We are one team, working together,” he said.

Puerto Rico Incident Command Post

National Headquarters

  • NESA Squadron – Lt. Col. Eric A. Templeton

Those involved so far are:

Alabama Wing

  • Wing Headquarters – Lt. Col. Harvey L. Yarborough
  • Redstone Composite Squadron – Maj. Bryce Kuykendall
  • Pell City Senior Squadron ­– Maj. Charles A. Reidy Jr.

Florida Wing

  • Marco Island Senior Squadron – Maj. Richard A. Farmer, Maj. Marian I. Motylszary
  • Naples Senior Squadron – Capt. Jhon F. Arias

Georgia Wing

  • ​Peachtree-Dekalb Senior Squadron – Maj. Michael H. Mullett
  • Marietta Air Museum Cadet Squadron – Lt. Col. Thomas R. Berg

Mississippi Wing

  • Col. Berta A. Edge Composite Squadron – Capt. William O. Henry
  • Pine Belt Composite Squadron – Maj. Randall P. Broussard
  • Singing River Senior Squadron – Maj. Dayle B. Robinson

Puerto Rico Wing

  • Wing Headquarters – Lt. Col. Samuel Rivera, Lt. Col. Juan Rodriguez, Maj. Victor Antonio Santiago, Capt. Luis J. Herrera, 1st Lt. Alberto Torres
  • Isla Grande Senior Squadron – Lt. Col. Hector R. Alicea, Lt. Col. Waldemar Figueroa, Capt. Jose J. Perez, Senior Member Mario J. Perez
  • Capt. Saulo Solis-Molina Cadet Squadron – Capt. Gabriel Sierra, Cadet Maj. Jose L. Alvarado Ocasio, Cadet Capt. Luis G. Sierra, Cadet Staff Sgt. Hector Ivan Rodriguez, Cadet Senior Airman Daniel Sierra
  • Muniz ANG Base Cadet Squadron – Col. Herman Liboy, Cadet Lt. Col. Marcos A. Lopez
  • Toa Alta Cadet Squadron – Lt. Col. Giacomo Peter Venza

Tennessee Wing

  • Group 1 – Maj. George R. Borsari III
  • Murfreesboro Composite Squadron – Lt. Col. Peter A. Acevedo

Virtual Incident Command Post

Alabama Wing

  • Tuscaloosa Composite Squadron – 1st Lt. Eric T. Lewis, 2nd Lt. Gina Lewis

Georgia Wing

  • Wing Headquarters – Maj. R. Bradford Haynes
  • Cobb County Composite Squadron – Maj. Linda W. Kotula
  • Gwinnett County Composite Squadron – Capt. Timothy D. Perry

Tennessee Wing

  • Knoxville Senior Squadron 1 – Lt. Col. J. Andrew Boyer

Virginia Wing

  • Wing Headquarters – Maj. Nicholas A. Rushizky

Wisconsin Wing

  • Timmerman Composite Squadron – Lt. Col. Gerald H. Krueger, Lt. Col. John M. Lange, Lt. Col. Christoffer M. Trossen,

FEMA/Rescue Coordination Center

Maryland Wing

  • ​Carroll County Composite Squadron – Lt. Col. Richard R. Stuart

Virginia Wing

  • Wing Headquarters – Col. James A. Covel, Lt. Col. Elizabeth A. Sydow

Virtual Communications

Southeast Region

  • Region Headquarters – Capt. Carl E. Hultin

Georgia Wing

  • Cobb County Composite Squadron – Maj. Linda W. Kotula