OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — Every morning her 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 five 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 including his sisters, mom, dad and cousins. Finally, he comes home to wake up the next day to do it all over again.
“They still, to this day, have no electricity,” said Lt. Col. Iris Ortiz Gonzales, 55th Dental Squadron Clinical Flight commander and a Puerto Rico native.
When Ortiz Gonzales 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 to the hurricane, everyone was asking me, ‘How is your family,’” Ortiz Gonzales 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 a hurricane of this magnitude and power.”
To her knowledge, the last hurricane even close to its degree was in 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 Gonzales said. “I couldn’t get through to my family for days and that increased my anxiety. My team kept checking on me, and I tried my best to put on a good face.”
Ortiz Gonzales 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 trees. It would be weeks before anyone could get to them.
When she finally heard from her brother, all the rumors she heard were confirmed. She knew she had to do something.
Ortiz Gonzales 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. It wasn’t cheap, but the price did not deter her. 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 I 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,” she said. “He said as soon as you begin to land, everything you see is blue tarps covering where homes used to be.”
She said it will take decades to restore Puerto Rico to its former beauty, which she remembers as paradise.
“We had the 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 found only there.”
She suggests if others want to help, to find a church that is working in the community, because the aid goes directly to the people or to support a reconstruction mission.
While Ortiz Gonzales continues to look for ways to help, the Airmen around her are in awe of her humility and kindness.
“Although she is not someone that likes recognition, she 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 Gonzales 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.