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Sailors, Marines Help Shore up Dam in Puerto Rico

Water drains from the Guajataca Dam in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico on Sept. 23.(AP Photo)
Water drains from the Guajataca Dam in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico on Sept. 23.(AP Photo)

GUAJATACA DAM, Puerto Rico -- The CH-53 Super Stallion swooped around and hovered low on Friday as three Marines steadied themselves against the helicopter's whipping downdraft. They grabbed a cable dangling from an open hatch in its belly and hooked it to one of about five dozen concrete Jersey barriers lining a road that traverses the troubled earthen dam.

The barriers are precious cargo. Marine Corps and Navy helicopter pilots have worked this week to shore up the busted spillway that runs along the Guajataca Dam in northwest Puerto Rico. It has suffered significant erosion following Hurricane Maria's heavy rains and now threatens people below.

For more than an hour Friday, Marine Capt. Jack Keldorph looped his hulking Super Stallion from the spillway to the dam, in a choreographed dance. With each loop, Keldorph, co-pilot First Lt. Robert Yamnicky and other crew members dropped a 5,000-pound barrier on a twisted and growing pile of concrete and rebar in the dam's spillway in a valley below. Each drop took a little more than a minute and was guided by an engineer and a Navy pilot standing along the spillway.

The spillway was "gushing water a few days ago," Keldorph, 35, said after Friday's mission, adding that it appeared to have slowed since the mission began Monday.

Marine helicopters from the Norfolk-based USS Kearsarge and Navy MH-53 Sea Dragons from the USS Wasp -- which arrived in the region Wednesday after helping with relief for Dominica -- have dropped more than 300 barriers in coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers, officials said. After the Marine and Navy helicopters finish their work, the Army is expected to drop large sandbags on the area.

The Kearsarge, along with the Virginia Beach-based USS Oak Hill, deployed Aug. 30 to help if needed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. That call never came, but hurricanes Irma and Maria did.

It is unclear how long these sailors and Marines will remain in the area. The Wasp was on its way from Virginia Beach to a new homeport in Japan when it was diverted to help. A Navy hospital ship, USNS Comfort, arrived from Norfolk earlier this week.

Eddy Perez, 58, watched from the side of Guajataca Lake as water lapped across the roadway Friday afternoon. A few vehicles, mostly trucks, passed by. Perez said he abandoned his home about 200 feet from the bottom of the dam in the days after Maria and has been staying with cousins on higher ground in the municipality of Isabela.

If the structure breaks, "I'm gone," he said.

"I know they're doing everything they can," Perez said. "We appreciate that. We all appreciate that because we don't want our little piece of land to disappear."

While some cellphone service has returned to parts of Puerto Rico, Liz Rios said her family has been cut off from communications, electricity and water since the storm. She stood with three of her children and husband Leo near the dam. She called the military operation impressive.

But Leo Rios said he cannot work. The family plans to leave Puerto Rico on Oct. 15 to stay with a relative in Florida.

The nearly 90-year-old reservoir touches the municipalities of Quebradillas, Isabela and San Sebastian, and was created to supply the surrounding regions with hydroelectric power and drinking water. The dam became a concern in the days after Maria and residents were warned to evacuate amid fears of massive flooding.

Still, at the bottom of the spillway, a woman could be seen Friday on the porch of a one-story home across from water that rushed under a washed-out bridge. An excavator lifted and dropped large, broken-up chunks of concrete into water nearby.

A man pulled up in an ice cream truck under darkening skies signalling a common afternoon thunderstorm. He didn't have water or ice cream for sale, but he did have soft drinks for $1 a can.

"This is like a blessing," said Marine Cpl. Julian DeCarlo as he waited for a Coca-Cola.

The Marines' Super Stallions and the Navy's Sea Dragons are variations of a heavy lift helicopter known for its ability to fly long distances. A handful of Marines from a 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit helicopter support team, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., said previous training lifting items including howitzers and troop transport vehicles prepared them for Friday's mission. They also have loaded food, water and other supplies in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The dam is "a real project and it's a real task," said Lance Cpl. Alexander Adams, 23. "It gives you a little more energy."

The humanitarian response here remains a complex task, sometimes complicated by the availability of supplies. Keldorph said finding truckers to deliver the barriers was an early challenge. On Friday, he faced another.

The Marines ran out of the slings they were using to hook the barriers to the helicopter's cable. An order that they were expecting Friday morning had not yet materialized by the afternoon. Keldorph and the crew of about 10 Marines, sunburned from working on the dam with a Navy pilot since the morning, were forced to head back to the Kearsarge with about 30 barriers left on the roadway and nothing to move them with.

Marine pilots said they were prepared to continue working for as long as it takes.

"Hopefully, this saves the dam," Keldorph said. "The engineer said this would be like a $300 million project to replace this dam. We're talking about a humanitarian disaster if these people lose all this water supply."

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