OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ne --
Every morning my brother wakes up at 2 a.m. to wait in line for gas with the rest of the island. After the 10 or 12 hour wait he moves to another line for 5 to 10 more hours for two bags of ice, which he brings home for drinking water. Then he proceeds to drive around the island to look for food to feed the entire family, my sisters, my mom, my dad, my cousins. Finally, he comes home to wake up the next day to do it all over again, said the Puerto Rico native.
“They still, to this day, have no electricity,” said Lt. Col. Iris Ortiz Gonzales, 55th Dental Squadron clinical flight commander.
When Ortiz heard Hurricane Maria would pass through her home town of Aibonito, she envisioned all the hurricanes growing up that closed the school for a couple days, brought rain and a little light flooding.
“In the days leading up the hurricane, everyone was asking me, ‘how is your family,’” Ortiz said. “I laughed it off because they knew what to do and it was no big deal. Well it was a big deal. I never in my wildest dreams would think of hurricane of this magnitude and power.”
To her knowledge, the last hurricane even close to its degree was the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the next day when she saw videos of the destruction that it hit her.
“I was still working and I would cry, take a patient, then come back and cry more,” Ortiz said. “I couldn’t get through to my family for days and that increased my anxiousness. My team kept checking on me, and I tried my best to put on a good face.”
Ortiz heard reports from friends of friends that half the houses in her hometown, tucked away in the mountains, were gone, and the floods had destroyed the main roads: blocking them with mud and tress. It would be weeks before anyone could get to them.
When she finally heard from her brother, all the rumors she had heard were confirmed. She knew she had to do something.
Ortiz reached out to a friend from dental school, who was also from Puerto Rico. Together, they worked with a church in Florida and chartered a private plane to Puerto Rico, but it wasn’t cheap. The price did not deter Ortiz. She personally funded the mission and got to work gathering supplies to fill the entire plane – from all the fixings for a massive Thanksgiving dinner, to water, to generators and solar lamps. No space would go unfilled.
“It wasn’t just me,” she said. “It was a whole community working together. I flew to Florida to help load the plane, but didn’t go.”
This left more room for much needed goods.
She said she is hesitant to return home.
“My husband has been back, but I haven’t, and he said it was best I didn’t go because I would have been crying the whole trip,” said Ortiz. “He said as soon as you begin to land, everything you see is blue tarps over homes that are gone.”
She said it will take decades to restore Puerto Rico to its former beauty, what she remembers as paradise.
“We had they only [tropical] rain forest within the United States called El Yunque and now it is gone,” Ortiz Gonzales said. “They estimate it will take 50 years to grow back. There were so many flowers and trees and animals only found there.”
She suggests if others want to help, to find a church that is working in the community because it’s going directly to the people or to support a reconstruction mission.
While Ortiz continues to look for ways to help, the Airman around her are in awe of her humility and kindness.
“Although she is not someone that likes recognition, Lt. Col. Ortiz is very selfless whether it be with her Air Force family, her own family or a complete stranger,” said Tech Sgt. Kari Torres, 55th DS. “She deserves recognition because she is a silent hero. Her work ethic and involvement with the community are unmatched and something to be very proud of.”
Every day, Ortiz said she continues to hope, but some days are harder than others.
“It’s hard when you want to talk to you mom or your brother and you can’t because you know they won’t answer,” she said.