The Federal Emergency Management Agency request for a 20-area aerial photo assessment of neighboring Caribbean islands came in on Tuesday — and by Thursday, Civil Air Patrol’s Puerto Rico Wing mission was underway.
There was little time to waste: Hurricane Lee was due to arrive in a matter of days.
Unlike previous FEMA-initiated aerial missions in Region 2, this one was intended to document coastal and inland infrastructure in densely populated areas before the storm’s arrival. It had to be done quickly and at a low-enough altitude to provide the detailed imagery crucial for disaster response and recovery efforts.
The speedy response wasn’t an issue for Lt. Col. Carlos Arroyo, the incident commander in charge of the Puerto Rico Wing mission.
“A lot has changed here since [Hurricane] Maria, where we had only a few people able to respond,” said Arroyo, who recently retired after 30 years of CAP service.
“There are now better communications and stronger collaboration with FEMA, so our members can fully help wherever they are needed.”
The seven-day mission involved 21 Puerto Rico Wing members conducting 15 flights over 20 collection areas — including the island’s eastern and southern regions and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands (FEMA already had newer imagery of St. Thomas and St. John from 2022 activations).
Two camera imagery systems mounted on CAP aircraft generated 12,130 photos uploaded to tablets onboard. The two crafts’ flight time totaled just under 40 hours, with ground support involving four CAP vehicles.
“It’s seldom that FEMA will ask us to do imagery prior to an event,” said Ron Olienyk, director of operations at CAP National Headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
Historically, that’s been due to weather conditions and costs, Olienyk said, adding that “Puerto Rico is uniquely situated, with aircraft centrally located, so crews don’t have to travel far to get to them.”
Abrom Shepard, FEMA Region 2’s geospatial coordinator, said such a rapid response to pre-storm imagery activations could become common. He cited existing relationships and strong communications between FEMA and regional CAP leaders.
He’s already seen a general compression of time to launch. “Once activated, Civil Air Patrol can have a crew ready in 24 to 36 hours,” Shepard said.
Weather conditions worked in the Puerto Rico Wing’s favor in September.
“Typically, when we have notice of events, the weather’s already bad and we don’t have time to react and collect pre-landfall footage,” said Glen Russell, an emergency management specialist at FEMA headquarters.
Foul weather not only increases the dangers of an aerial mission — provided it’s still viable — but also raises the risks of poor imagery because of cloudy, windy, and/or rainy conditions.
Hurricanes can change course because of various atmospheric factors, including the influence of high- and low-pressure systems, steering winds, and interactions with other systems.
Those conditions forced Category 3 Hurricane Lee to veer north of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in September.
Even so, incident commander Arroyo was proud of how CAP volunteers responded to FEMA’s request. “This demonstrated that we are a good resource for our communities,” he said. “It also showed how much we’ve improved since Maria.”
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, causing widespread destruction. The Category 4 storm resulted in a humanitarian crisis in the wake of extensive power outages, collapsed infrastructure, and a shortage of essential supplies.
Then in 2020, Puerto Rico faced another challenge with a series of earthquakes, the most significant registering 6.4 magnitude. These seismic events compounded the island’s struggles, further damaging already-weakened structures.
By the time Puerto Rico encountered Hurricane Fiona in 2022, with severe flooding and extensive power outages, local CAP members were ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice.
The combination of those hurricanes and the earthquakes highlighted the region’s vulnerability to natural disasters.
But these disasters also underscored residents’ resilience — including those serving in Civil Air Patrol. “FEMA knows that we here in Puerto Rico have the potential to help before or after a hurricane or major disaster,” Arroyo said. “This mission helped demonstrate that.”
The pre-storm photos will be added to an expanding imagery archive to provide baseline imagery for future events as well as to allow insights from exposure analyses and consequence models.
“Ideally, the imagery CAP has collected for us will be helpful for years to come,” FEMA’s Russell said. “Of course, one new major disaster will make that imagery old.
“But I hope this is a turning point and represents a new precedent. It’s hard for us to collect imagery for every place we think a disaster will happen every year, but if we look at the processes used and why this one worked so well, we can recreate it elsewhere,” he said.