SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Omar Esquilin-Mangual, from Caguas, Puerto Rico, was born, raised and educated on the island before working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2010 after receiving his master's degree in civil engineering degree from the University of Puerto Rico.
Yamiretsy Pagan-Albelo, from Ciales, Puerto Rico, was born, raised and educated on the island and working for the USACE in 2011 after receiving her bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Puerto Rico.
"We went to the same university, studied in the same career, but hadn't met until ERDC," Yamiretsy said, referring to the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they both work.
"Lucky for me I was able to find her," Omar said. "We were married in 2015."
And when they returned to Puerto Rico in 2017 - they did so together, albeit for less than blissful reasons.
"Our journey with the Blue Roof mission started on Nov. 20," Omar said. "We were stunned by the scale of devastation and the conditions on which a lot of residents were still living."
The two began supporting USACE's Operation Blue Roof mission nearly six weeks after the first temporary blue roof was installed on Oct. 4. The scale of need, compounded by the many challenges needing to be overcome were apparent at once.
"For me, the first day in the field was the most disappointing of all," Esquilin-Mangual said. "Not only because I saw with my own eyes all the need of the people of Adjuntas, but also early on we struggled with navigation; using the devices in a areas with no network connectivity; dealing with punctured tires due to the insane amount of nails in the roads; dealing with mosquitos; trying not to be bitten by dogs; dealing with heat and rain; being overwhelmed by the amount of need and not much time for being in such remote area."
There have been dozens of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel that hail from Puerto Rico return to the island to help residents recover from the devastation of hurricane Maria. The value they added to the mission is immeasurable in terms of understanding the culture of the island, navigating complex terrain and speaking the local language.
"We can also pass information on to people we know, and provide information to our families," Yamiretsy said. "This is very important because they can spread the word about the help that is available, and how to get that help."
The two were quickly promoted from performing blue roof assessments and going door-to-door collecting rights-of-entry to managing teams of USACE and contracted personnel. Omar was the quality assurance supervisor for one of the zones in the Ponce area, and Yamiretsy became the team lead for another zone in the area.
"Day after day we realized that the days were too short to do all we wanted for that day because every assessment, every story, every house touched our hearts and we wanted to do more," Omar said. "It's been hard, and long days have passed but just the feeling that I'm helping my island gives me the strength for the next day."
Following their assignments here, Omar and Yamiretsy plan on spending a few days with family. They intended to do so during their off hours, but hadn't an opportunity to do so due to working long hours every day.
The mission to provide temporary roofing to an estimated 75,000 homes in Puerto Rico is ongoing, with more than 27,000 installations as of Dec. 28. The pace of the operation has steadily increased, with more than 1,000 contracted workers installing nearly 650 blue roofs daily.