CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the West Virginia Army National Guard have become some of the nation’s best in the immediate response to natural disasters. The experience made the unit extremely valuable to the people of the Virgin Islands soon after Hurricane Maria passed.

Lt. Dwight Siemiaczko was attached to the West Virginia Army National Guard’s Critical Infrastructure Assessment Team on the Island of St.Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They had been deployed to the location originally to assist in the damage assessment from Hurricane Irma only days earlier. Once in place they learned Hurricane Maria was headed straight at them.

“If you leave, it’s hard to get back in,” Siemiaczko told MetroNews. “If you stay, we were able to be one of the first responders out following the hurricane there on St. Croix.”

The team sheltered in a hardened bunker which served as the headquarters of the Virgin Islands National Guard as Maria battered the island with Category 5 winds for hours.

“We were in a pretty safe structure, but if you were a civilian living in your home, I cannot imagine riding out that hurricane,” said Siemiaczko. “If you went outside, all you could do was lie down and hope an object doesn’t hit you. The wind was non stop.”

A day later, the West Virginia team was among the first to emerge from the bunker and get to work on recovery. A Brigadier General specifically called for the West Virginia team to assist in getting to the airport and getting the runway operational.

“They don’t get a lot of major hurricanes, but we get flooding every year,” Lt. Siemiaczko explained. “We have the expertise and the system down. When the engineers roll out we need roads cleared and debris moved. We’re good at what we do. He came and found us.”

Siemiaczko and his fellow West Virginia Guardsmen were instrumental in getting the road from the guard base to the airport opened in approximately four hours. and by the end of the day they had assessed and directed the clearance of the airfield. The quick work enabled the first relief supplies to start to arrive.

They didn’t have a lot of help initially. Local guard members were hamstrung in dealing with the aftermath of their own homes and families. No part of the island was spared. For the West Virginia guard members it was a stark contrast to a West Virginia disaster.

“In West Virginia you’ll have a lot of locals to come in with loaders and chainsaws. The response is great back home, but you didn’t have that in the Virgin Islands because the whole island got wiped out,” said Siemiaczko. “That’s one thing I noticed is back in West Virginia everybody chips in to help and it makes it much faster and much easier.’

Members of the West Virginia team completed road clearing and moved on to the mission they were initially sent to the region to complete. They inspected various buildings to determine whether the structure were sound to occupy after the storm. They also inspected a pier the Navy wanted to use to bring relief supplies ashore. The work lasted two weeks before the team headed home to West Virginia.

“On the way back I went from St. Croix, to St. Thomas, to Niagara Falls before I drove back to West Virginia,” said Siemiaczko. “I never figured I’d be in St. Croix doing hurricane relief, nor did I think I’d ever be in a Cat 5 hurricane. I’ve checked a lot of things off my bucket list.”

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