I got an urgent call from a friend, born in Puerto Rico but living in Columbia for many years. He knows I am a commercial pilot, in the Civil Air Patrol, and have flown disaster recovery missions for the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. He asked me to fly to San Juan right away to pick up his sister and bring her to Columbia. Living conditions were declining rapidly in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation.
I immediately called Jim Hamilton, a pilot who has made many medical and humanitarian flights. Jim was the long-time manager of Owens Field, now named the Jim Hamilton-LB Owens Airport. His said I should call the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight service right away to get a report on whether a general aviation flight would be feasible, given the volume of military, supply and evacuation flights at the Puerto Rican airport.
The FAA advised me that the primary airport near San Juan was closed from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., instrument approaches and all tower lights were out of service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection services were not available.
Planes flying direct from U.S. airports, such as Miami to San Juan, are not required to go through customs. But for a 1,000-mile flight from Miami to San Juan, I would need to stop at least twice for fuel at foreign airports, making it impossible for me, without a customs inspection, to enter Puerto Rico. Regrettably, I told my friend that I could not rescue his sister.
I am not the only South Carolinian being called upon to help those in Puerto Rico.
Lockheed C-130 Hercules military aircraft are flying passengers from Puerto Rico to South Carolina to receive medical care at hospitals in Columbia and other parts of the state.
Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the S.C. National Guard to send 150 soldiers to Puerto Rico to help clear roads so that trucks carrying supplies can reach isolated areas of the island. Our soldiers may remain on the island for several months, or more, as needed.
As a coastal state prone to hurricanes and floods and dependent on tourism, South Carolina has much in common with Puerto Rico. Many in South Carolina are happy to offer assistance to Puerto Ricans, all fellow U.S. citizens since 1917. This is Puerto Rico’s time of need, and we will be creating links in the months and years ahead to help residents recover from this disaster.
Many Puerto Ricans, especially those living in the island’s rural interior, need fuel, electricity, clean water, communication, transportation, food and medical care. In the nearby, devastated U.S. Virgin Islands of St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas, the sole air transportation is by small private aircraft. Some supplies are being provided by private boat from Puerto Rico.
When I was in Puerto Rico in April, I watched as children flew kites on the spacious grounds of El Morro Castle in San Juan and kittens played in the narrow streets. Multicolored buildings were surrounded by tall palm trees. It was a beautiful island with relaxed, warm days for visitors and residents. And so much of that is gone now.
The Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, just to the east of San Juan, is, coincidentally, located in the municipality of Carolina. That city was named after King Charles II of Spain in 1857 — well after the land in the South of what is now the United States was named after Charles I of England, in 1629.
One little-known connection that South Carolina has with Puerto Rico dates to 1979, when 1,400 Rhesus monkeys were transported to Beaufort’s Morgan Island from the Caribbean Primate Research Center in La Parguera, Puerto Rico. The monkeys are used for biomedical research and testing. You can often catch a glimpse of them, at a distance, from a boat on the Morgan River.
Dr. Smith is a Columbia sociologist; contact him at at email@example.com.