By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Elesia K. Patten

ABOARD USS NIMITZ AT SEA — For many sailors aboard the deployed aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, Hurricane Maria hit close to home. But for one Nimitz sailor, it literally hit home.

Last month, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Josue Cordero-Fernandez, an aviation machinist’s mate, was working in the jet shop aboard the Navy’s oldest active aircraft carrier as Hurricane Maria was gaining momentum, churning in the Atlantic Ocean and barreling toward Puerto Rico.

After hearing that the Category 4 hurricane was projected to hit his homeland, Cordero-Fernandez contacted his family back in Quebradillas – a small rural town located on the Puerto Rico’s northwest shore. Confident that the storm would miss, as many storms had done in the past, his experiences kept him from worrying. But as the storm grew closer to Puerto Rico, his fears grew and he agonized in his rack, unable to sleep for almost a week.

“I lost contact with them the night before it actually hit because communications started going down,” he said. “The next day when I started seeing pictures, I felt so useless in that moment because I knew I couldn’t do anything. I’m here on deployment.”

Unable to Contact Family

Over the next few days, Cordero-Fernandez tried over and over to contact his family, but he was unable to establish communication. He kept his eyes glued to the TV and computer in his shop, taking in reports about conditions in Puerto Rico.

“Seeing so much devastation around the island and not be able to get ahold of them, I was just thinking the worst,” he said. “There’s no way I can send money, because I don’t have their bank information, can’t call them, can’t do anything.”

Cordero-Fernandez said one report told of an emergency evacuation because the Lake Guajataca dam was about to collapse. Lake Guajataca is significant, he explained, because it connects three major towns: Isabela, San Sebastian, and Quebradillas.

“That was one of my biggest fears,” he said. “They had to evacuate around 70,000 people in case the dam collapsed. Even though my family lives far away from it, if the collapse happened, I knew they would not have water services for months.”

Finding a Way to Help

Most services on the hurricane-ravaged island were down immediately following the storm. Unable to physically go to the aid of his family, Cordero-Fernandez said, he wanted to find a way to help. So that’s what he did. He got online and began buying essentials such as food and water for his mother, siblings and nephew in Quebradillas.

“My first reaction, my first thought was, ‘I have to make sure they have food,’” he said. “Even though I don’t know anything about what’s happening with my family, I’m just going to start buying food and water and sending it back home.”

Communications services were extremely limited, as Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s energy grid, leaving nearly 3.5 million people without power. But some phone and internet companies had service and offered free hotspots to help people reach their loved ones.

Making Contact

After nearly a week of tormenting thoughts, desperately checking Facebook, and frantically calling home, Cordero-Fernandez said, he got good news from his family.

“I finally heard from them through Facebook,” he added. “It took me around five days to get ahold of them. It was the greatest feeling ever. I felt relief knowing they were OK, that they didn’t suffer any property damage, and they were alive, which was the most important thing.”

The island began receiving first aid and support from several organizations shortly after the storm hit, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. military, including the Navy.

“I feel good that the Navy is providing the help we need,” Cordero-Fernandez said. “Within the first week, Navy vessels were sent to my island to help out. I think that was a good thing.”

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.