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News | Nov. 2, 2017

DCMA employee volunteers to assist with Puerto Rico hurricane relief efforts

By Tonya Johnson DCMA Public Affairs

Efrain Vega De Varona knew he had to do something when he heard about Hurricane Maria heading straight for Puerto Rico in September.

De Varona is currently a quality engineer at Defense Contract Management Agency Los Angeles. He has been a part of the DCMA team for five years.

De Varona is from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and he has relatives who still live on the island, which is a United States territory. He flew to Puerto Rico to evacuate his parents after the hurricane and they are now residing with family members in Florida. In addition, he decided to go back to Puerto Rico and volunteer with the hurricane relief efforts.

“I was born and raised in Puerto Rico,” said De Varona. “On my trip to evacuate my parents, I took 1,700 pounds of relief supplies in 19 boxes, brought my parents to Florida, and then flew back to Puerto Rico with 5,000 pounds of relief supplies in 50 boxes.”

Once initially on the ground, De Varona was able to contact 30 local friends and volunteers and established a command center known as the Pirate Command Center at a local church in Guaynabo. He also contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency and teamed up with World Kitchen, an organization that has been providing hot meals to residents around the island.

“Once we partnered with FEMA, the organization initially gave us 10 pallets of food and water for distribution, which was distributed in one day,” said De Varona. “On another day, we pushed out 59 pallets. Within two weeks, we had given out more than 300 pallets of food and water. There is a sense of accomplishment that I have been able to help, but there is more to do.”

Those pallets during the initial two-week period consisted of distributing more than 300 pallets of food and water a week, which were distributed to 78 municipalities.

“I put 1,234 miles on my own rental jeep during that time frame,” said De Varona. “Puerto Rico is 100 miles long, so that’s crossing it 12 times. This has been the biggest and toughest effort in my life.”

Since Hurricane Maria hit the island, De Varona has made multiple trips back to help those in need. The Pirate Command Center volunteers have also made their logistics process better to help more people around the island. The command center operates even when De Varona is in Los Angeles, and his friends keep him posted with the distribution updates.

“We now get our food and water pallets each morning directly from the FEMA warehouse versus the items being sent to the church,” said De Varona. “We regroup each day and we have a list of the places we need to go, and people are very good about keeping us in the loop, whether through social media or on the ground, about where we need to go next, including the hard to reach areas where there is a food or water shortage. We’re always looking for ways to refine our system.”

Once contacted, De Varona said his group will deliver food and water to a community in 12 to 24 hours. The volunteers typically work 20-hour days, and they deliver hot meals and food and water pallets to orphanages, nursing homes, hospitals and other places as directed. The food boxes contain non-perishable items, including Meals Ready to Eat, also known as MREs, snacks and canned food. Volunteers use a variety of transportation, including box trucks and vans.

According to De Varona, water is the most important and requested necessity for people to use for drinking, bathing and other needs.

“Water is an important resource,” he said. “Puerto Rico reminds me of a third-world status country right now. There is a lack of access to clean water, electricity and medical care. It’s important to get to all of the towns as some of them have people who are bed ridden and need immediate help.”

De Varona is using his personal leave and said he will continue to go back to Puerto Rico until it is exhausted.

“There are still a lot of people without food and water,” he said. “The necessity is still there. There are still a lot of communities that need help. I plan to go back until I exhaust my leave, and then I am still willing to go back, even taking leave without pay. I want to continue to bring everything straight into the hands of those in need.”