NWLA Guardsman home from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico
SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - One of Shreveport's members of the Louisiana National Guard returned to the Port City on Wednesday after spending the past month in Puerto Rico.
Signs reading "Welcome Home" and "Our Hero" greeted Sgt. David McGarrity up the driveway of his home on Suzanne Drive.
But while he rests, he said, a part of his heart remains on the southern tip of an island in the Caribbean Sea.
"It wasn't what I was told. You think it's a beautiful island and it's not. It's ravaged. Sad. It's ,,, "
The Guardsman trails off, his eyes glistening as he recalls his first thoughts once he set foot on Puerto Rico's shores.
More than 30 days ago, McGarrity chose to deploy with the 39th Military Police unit from Camp Minden and join the 239th MP from Carville to help bring aid to people around the Ponce area in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
The strongest storm to strike Puerto Rico in 85 years killed more than 50 people since it made landfall at the end of September.
When he arrived, McGarrity said he began looking for his family on the island that was the native home of his grandfather.
"There was no communication, so we couldn't call our family members to see if they were safe. So everyone wants you to 'Find them, Find them!' You're like 'I don't even know where I'm at,."
McGarrity told KSLA News 12 that his platoon was tasked with patrolling neighborhoods, watching for looters and guarding aid supplies.
"It was our mission to escort the water and the food because the water or food would come up missing or people would try to steal it. And so it was our job to make sure that we distribute out through nine different cities."
That 30-day mission became easier said than done when McGarrity discovered the conditions the people there are living in.
"Power lines, roofs torn apart. People in distress, confused. The country's almost at a third-world country level right now."
Through patrol after patrol, McGarrity described trudging through temperatures that would "make Louisiana feel cold.
"Thirty days. No power, no hot water. ... You sweat all day long. You take about three showers a day: once in the morning, once in the afternoon to cool down and then you cool down one more time before you go to bed."
McGarrity said the biggest struggle his unit faced was getting communication across the island to signal storm victims where food drops were.
"We were told when we got in there that 90% of the country spoke English, and it was about more like 10% spoke English," he said.
"When we have a hurricane, FEMA's on the scene within days. And FEMA was only there on one part of the island. They were putting on the radio: 'Oh, you can call a number.' There's no cell service. Or 'You can go on the Internet.' There's no Internet. So how do these people make a FEMA claim if there's no cell service and there's no Internet?"
McGarrity told KSLA News 12 that even when the southern port opened to accept FEMA supplies, there was no way to broadcast to storm victims that an aid station had been set up.
"There's no power so they don't have access to say: 'Hey, the food is here!' So they don't know that the food's there," he said.
"I would go to people and I would have my interpreter ask them: 'Hey, how did they find out about this place?' And they say just word of mouth. ... It's been there two weeks and they just showed up for the first time in two weeks so they could have had food and water two weeks ago."
McGarrity likened the frustration he and his fellow Guardsman would feel to banging their fists against a wall.
"Every day it was like that."
Still, McGarrity said, he was able to contact with his family members a week into his mission and they were unharmed by the storm.
He described the Puerto Ricans as a good people trying to claw their way through devastation to survive.
Now McGarrity is home with his wife, Amanda, and their two sons.
For this Guardsman, there's nowhere else he'd rather be.
"Yesterday, I was pulled two different ways," McGarrity said of his sons.
"I love it. That's a great feeling and I have an amazing wife. She always makes sure I have a six-pack of beer and a steak. She does her best. I'm sure she's just waiting about a day or two before she unleashes the 'Honey Do List'."
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