Joel Rivera rumbled down dirt roads in his mother’s Kia Forte weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico — on a mission for the U.S. military that he never imagined when he joined the Navy 14 years ago as a submariner.
Dressed in civilian clothing, Rivera and his cousin drove through mountains searching for islanders needing food and water who were out of reach because large trucks couldn’t use debris-filled and washed-out roads. He’d drop off what little provisions he could carry in the four-door sedan and — whenever he could get a cell phone signal — report to military officials on the island about the hardest-hit areas.
“I’d really just pick a spot on a map that was secluded,” he said. “At this point the government was handing out food and water to the cities.”
“I wanted to take care of the places where they were overlooking.”
This was far from an ordinary assignment for Rivera, a machinist’s mate aboard the USS San Francisco as it transitions from a decommissioned attack submarine to a training vessel at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth.
While the Navy sent helicopters, ships and doctors from Hampton Roads to help, Rivera was simply on vacation. He managed to get to an Army Reserve Center base, secured orders to temporarily join a military police battalion there, then was given an incredible autonomy to help in a way few others could — all without ever wearing a uniform.
“It was a great experience doing that. At the same time you could see in their faces that this is not enough, and it’s always going to be like that I think,” Rivera said earlier this month at Submarine Forces Atlantic’s headquarters in Norfolk. “I could only give them a couple things here, a couple things there.”
Rivera’s unlikely role as a submariner delivering humanitarian aid ashore started out as rest and relaxation.
He was born in Puerto Rico and was visiting his parents for the first time in six years when Maria struck as a Category 4 storm in September, causing catastrophic damage to much of the American territory’s infrastructure and leaving residents like his parents without electricity or running water. He had chosen a two-week visit during what happened to be hurricane season because he has no family in Hampton Roads and volunteered to work over the holidays so others could spend time with loved ones.
He was set to fly back to Norfolk just four days after the hurricane made landfall, but it soon became clear that would be impossible. A few days after clearing debris in his parents’ neighborhood, helping neighbors repair roofs and generators, he hiked for five hours to get to his grandmother’s house and ride with his uncle to a nearby military base. He needed to tell his bosses in Virginia what happened, but even the base didn’t have telephone or internet service yet.
He didn’t try going to another base for several more days — gas for a vehicle was a precious commodity. But when the roads near his parents house became passable, he found an Army Reserve Center he heard might have communications.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Joel Rivera, right, assigned to Deep Submergence Unit, directs members of the media down the hatch of the Submarine Rescue Diving and Recompression System during a submarine rescue exercise as part of exercise Bold Monarch 2011. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ricardo J. Reyes)
There, he was able to use Facebook Messenger to let his superiors know he was safe. They told him to just keep helping out in his community and return to Virginia when he could.
On Day 28 in Puerto Rico, he got a cellphone signal and talked to his boss again. Rivera was told if he could find a base to take him in, he would be given temporary orders to join it so he didn’t have to use all his leave. The Army Reserve quickly said yes.
At first, Rivera mostly did clerical work at a base near his home. But after two days, he said he felt like he wasn’t doing enough to directly help.
So Rivera was given a unique assignment: Go to a commercial airport near his parents’ home in Ponce on the southern end of the island that was being used to fly in humanitarian supplies by JetBlue Airlines. There, JetBlue officials stuffed his mother’s car with boxes of bottled water, canned goods, breakfast bars, snacks, and other supplies.
“We went exploring and talked to the people, said, ‘Hey, I’m trying to find the people that really need this.’ They were really helpful. They weren’t greedy. They pointed us where to go,” Rivera said. “It’s mountainous areas, places I didn’t even know were there.
“Dirt roads. Places I shouldn’t have been taking my mom’s car through.”
When he could, Rivera said, he’d wait in line for hours to get ice so that residents could have a cold sip of water during extremely hot and humid days. Rivera bought a cooler for the ice and paid for gas, although he said the Army base provided some fuel.
For two weeks, Rivera primarily operated on his own, occasionally texting his whereabouts to a contact at the police battalion. When he was able to get a flight home nearly two months after he arrived, he returned to the reserve center base one more time so he could thank everyone for the opportunity to work with them.
Rivera realizes it’s unusual for a submariner to do what he did, but the lessons he’s learned in the Navy about staying calm under pressure helped.
“When disaster strikes you try not freak out about it and try to see the bigger picture. We’ll eventually get this road clear, we’ll eventually get a little bit more stable with the water,” he said.
“I think that was one of the biggest things, is just realizing is that everything’s eventually going to be a little bit better throughout any situation.”