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A hero among us

Grassroots relief effort gathers 170 tons of supplies for Puerto Rico

Members of the D.C. Air National Guard prepare supplies gathered by Hernandez for shipment to Puerto Rico. (Photo: Master Sgt. Craig Clapper)

Manny Hernandez felt powerless.

Since leaving his native Puerto Rico in 2001 to join the Army, Manny had stayed in regular contact with his family on the island. But on Oct. 20, 2017, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded made landfall at Yabucoa Harbor on Puerto Rico's southeast shore, where Manny's parents and siblings still lived.

Over the next 24 hours, Maria devastated Puerto Rico's electrical and cellular infrastructure. When it was finally over, there was no power across the entire island: no way to get information and no way to tell the outside world who was safe or in danger. Manny, an engineer working on Raytheon's National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System in the National Capitol Region, pored over every fact and rumor that began to fill his Facebook feed, looking for signs that his family was safe.

“It took about two weeks for me to hear my parents’ voices,” Manny recalls.

Manny Hernandez is not by nature a passive person. In the wake of 9/11 he joined the U.S. Army and was part of the initial invasion of Iraq. Shortly after his discharge in 2005 he began working at Raytheon on the kind of Sentinel radars he'd maintained as a soldier. Manny is a passionate problem-solver, and he felt sick to his stomach watching his home island cut off from the rest of the world and facing a long, challenging recovery. "I can't sit here and do nothing", Manny thought, "So what can I do?"

A lot, it turns out. Manny connected with a close friend and fellow Puerto Rican native who owned a warehouse in Chantilly, Virginia. It was obvious to the both of them that, with plenty of space in the warehouse to spare, it was time to start asking for donations. Using their extensive social media networks, a small group of friends got the word out: Give us anything you can. Medicine, baby formula, food and bottled water, every little bit helps.

Responding to the call

The first day after the initial call for help, a few friends-of-friends showed up at the warehouse to drop off half a dozen boxes of supplies. On the second day, a truck full of food and goods rolled up. It grew from there.

"I was amazed by all the Puerto Ricans living nearby, and people in general, who were donating," Manny said. "We were all in the same situation: Ok I don't know anything about my family yet, but I want to do something to help."

With donations flooding in but the island still without power, Manny needed to get creative to ensure the donations were safely delivered to Puerto Rico. He contacted a local charity that was transporting rescued animals to the mainland, offering to provide them with pallets of goods to fill their empty cargo holds for the flight back to Puerto Rico. It was just another example of his creative problem solving in the face of adversity.

Going national

Manny soon got a call from the 113th Wing of the Air National Guard at Andrews Air Force Base, who had heard about his grassroots efforts. They wanted to help and had a C-130 military transport aircraft at the ready. "Sure," said Manny. "No problem. Before you know it, we have five big trucks in the Andrews parking lot with 10,000 pounds of supplies."

To date, Manny and his friends have collected and shipped 340,000 pounds of food and supplies to Puerto Rico.

Last Updated: 12/20/2017

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