Police & Fire

Fanwood Police Officer with Law Enforcement Team in Puerto Rico Finds Misery and Optimism

60634e603fc77077bf55_Caguas_PD.jpg
Officer Bernard, center, with two officers from the Caguas police Credits: Courtesy of Elliott Bernard
cf2b609ebd2872dc14fe_Caguas_Team__1_.jpg
Officer Bernard, kneeling in front, with his group Credits: Courtesy of Elliott Bernard
9503dc0665584a40c8d3_Toppled_utility.jpeg
Heavy traffic, downed utility pole Credits: Courtesy of Elliott Bernard
0bcd58a7698e6b8da6c5_One_legged_cop_2.jpeg
Caguas police officer Ralffy Diaz Reyes at a traffic post Credits: Courtesy of Elliott Bernard
9c2901bdb50daf418d34_Elliott_Bernard_2017.jpg
Officer Bernard at his desk at Fanwood PD Credits: Tom Kranz
a2660289839ddc94d896_image001.jpg
60634e603fc77077bf55_Caguas_PD.jpg

FANWOOD, NJ -- Like many other visitors to post-hurricane Puerto Rico, Fanwood Police Officer Elliott Bernard says the images seen on TV and online simply don’t capture the enormity of the damage, even two months after the storm. Roads with giant fissures, downed utility poles, epic food and water shortages and the lack of power make day to day life exhausting.

“Every day, you have to secure water, fuel for your generators. You have to get food. It’s a daily thing,” he recalled from his desk at the Fanwood Police Department where he’s been a patrolman since 2009.

Bernard, a member of the Union County Emergency Response Team (UCERT), was among five law enforcement officers from the County to be selected for Operation New Jersey Pride, a statewide effort organized by the New Jersey State Police to help keep law and order in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. He was there from Oct. 21 to Nov. 4 with a group totaling 100 law enforcement officers, all of whose salaries were paid by the federal government.

Sign Up for E-News

“We flew into San Juan and the airport looked like a ghost town,” he said. “No one else was getting off planes, getting baggage.”

After their first assigned hotel in the town of Dorado was found to have black mold everywhere, Bernard and 21 others were bussed to the Hilton in San Juan. It had a generator and running water.

“They had huge fans on,” he said. “You smelled the dampness. Walls were being knocked down because of mold.”

The Hilton would be his home away from home for 14 days, rooming with another police officer and being part of a four-man team who would be out assisting the Puerto Rican State Police in Caguas, a city about 25 miles southwest of San Juan, a city that took a direct hit from Maria.

“These officers from Caguas were working 12 hours a day since before the hurricane. Most of them didn’t have uniforms. They were wearing their regular clothes. They didn’t have power, so they couldn’t wash their uniforms. They wore various every-day shirts and their gun belts. They had no radios. They communicated by waving each other down or cellphones.”

Bernard’s group of 22 officers was divided into five patrol teams of four plus two supervisors. Each team was given a marked New Jersey State Police car (26 were shipped to the island and will remain there as a donation) and one satellite phone.

“The phone worked 90% of the time.  But one day for like 6 hours, there was no communication, even satellite phones. I don’t know what happened, but we were dealing with a shoplifting incident and we couldn’t get in touch with anyone else.” That incident ended peacefully without an arrest, but crime and violence is a dangerous byproduct of the hurricane aftermath.

“There were several reports of people getting their generator, getting their food and water, then walking out to their car and getting robbed by gang members and people who were desperate,” said Bernard, whose team spent time providing security at food and water distribution points, each of which had its own story of misery.

“We were out and about in parking lots, in the lines, watching people. Some supermarkets with generators were open but there were limited amounts of everything. There were lines three football fields long. You were only allowed one bag of ice, one case of water. So they’re waiting in line, it’s 90 degrees outside, back home there’s no power. People were extremely frustrated. Bigger stores like Home Depot would get, like, 25 generators at a time every couple days. So people would line up at 4 o’clock in the afternoon the day before for the next morning. Before we arrived, the police in Caguas were trying to do security at these distribution points but they just didn’t have the manpower.”

Because there is no electricity, there are no working traffic lights.

“They have seven-lane highways like we have here in NJ,” said Bernard, recalling his team’s other major assignment, traffic control. “The cars are meeting at intersections with no lights. It’s a free for all. We saw accidents everywhere. Cars were on the side of the road because they ran out of fuel or because they were disabled or struck and couldn’t get a tow truck. Or, people would pull over because at various points on the highway, there was cellphone service, little pockets of service where people would gather to use their phones.

“We were relieving the local police officers from traffic posts so they could actually go into the town and answer calls. It was a huge help for them. Again, they’d had no days off. The posts needed to be manned because the traffic was absolutely gridlocked. I’ve never seen traffic like that before. Even the shoulders were being used.”

Officer Bernard’s lasting memories from the 14-day trip linger on the great spirit of the people he met everywhere.

“They would come up to us and say ‘thank you’. What I found, which will stick with me forever, was that a lot of people were so optimistic. They were going home to no power, no anything. They would see us and say thank you for being here, thank you for helping us. We would see people who just finished waiting in line for two hours to get water and food drive up to us and offer us water. They’d say thank you, can I give you water?”

Caguas has become a symbol of the resilience of Puerto Rico during this trying time. And no one personifies that resilience more than Ralffy Díaz Reyes, a Caguas police officer who lost a leg in a boating accident 20 years ago. He got permission to return to duty in 2009, even with only one leg, and can be seen regularly directing traffic on one leg and crutches.

“He was out there directing traffic in the heat, blowing his whistle with one leg,” said Bernard. “And I shook his hand. It was unbelievable.”

Bernard was effusive in his praise for the New Jersey State Police, who organized the trip in the face of tremendous logistical challenges.

“I give so much credit to the state police, the way they were able to put together 24 police agencies to work together. They were able to be self-sufficient, getting vehicles there, food water, housing. The way they ran the operation was absolutely amazing.

“The police officers I was with, it didn’t matter how long the work day was, it was what else can I do? What else can I help you with? It was such a great feeling to be a part of that team.”

Bernard’s parents are from Puerto Rico and he has aunts, uncles and cousins on the island. He was able to visit some of them briefly during the trip.

“They’re exhausted,” he said.

“I couldn’t be prouder of Elliott,” said Fanwood Police Chief Richard Trigo. “He did great work down there and represented us in the best possible way. I appreciate our Mayor, Colleen Mahr, giving us the green light.”

“This was an easy decision,” said Mayor Mahr. “The Borough Council and I are proud that Elliott represented us in supporting Puerto Rico’s recovery.”

Courtesy of Elliot Bernard

1. Officer Bernard at his desk at Fanwood PD

2. Officer Bernard, kneeling in front, with his group

3. Officer Bernard, center, with two officers from the Caguas police

4. Caguas police officer Ralffy Diaz Reyes at a traffic post

5. Heavy traffic, downed utility pole

 

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Cranford

Athlete of the Week: Ryan Malko & Hanna Capone

February 6, 2018

CRANFORD, NJ – Following leading performances in track and field and ice hockey, Hanna Capone and Ryan Malko are Cranford High School’s Athletes of the Week.

Capone, a junior on the winter track team, recently earned the North II, Group III sectional title in the pole vault with a height of 9 ft. 3 inches, her personal best.

“I’m motivated by my personal ...

Filthy, dangerous conditions, theft and assault alleged at recently-opened Newark shelter

February 13, 2018

Newark, NJ—Antoinette Jackson, Sonya Webb and Andrea Eaddy sit in a McDonald’s on a cold winter morning, not far from the homeless shelter they currently call home.

During the day, they count on places like McDonald's to stay warm. They must leave the shelter at 7 a.m. and can only return after 4 p.m., even when temperatures drop below freezing.

When the ...

Cranford Endorses Colleen Mahr

February 19, 2018

Mayor Colleen Mahr has been a valuable friend to the Township of Cranford. Whether it’s offering advice and assistance during devastating flood cleanup, supporting the Mayor's Council on the Rahway River, or her insight and assistance in meeting our affordable housing obligations--Mayor Mahr is always there for Cranford.

Colleen’s fairness and integrity is beyond reproach.

Wardlaw+Hartridge Senior Signs National Letter of Intent

February 18, 2018

EDISON, NJ -- Mia Reyes of Piscataway, a senior at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School in Edison, has made it official: she will continue her soccer career at Haverford College next year.

The Wardlaw+Hartridge soccer star signed her official national letter of intent at a press conference with family, friends and coaches in attendance on Feb. 14. Mia, who will graduate with 30 goals and a W+H record ...

Cranford Police Blotter: Multiple Drug-Related Arrests & More

February 20, 2018

The information provided does not represent the total scope of police activity. Individuals charged as a result of police investigations are merely an accusation. All defendants should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

1. 02/14/2018 @ 2226 hrs.

Raritan Road and Coleman Avenue

Arrested: Kevin Johnson, 60, Plainfield

Arrested by: Jason D’Agostino

Charges: Possession of ...

Upcoming Events

Wed, February 21, 7:00 PM

The Cranford Hotel (hosted by Calvary Lutheran Church), Cranford

Beer & Bible

Religions And Spirituality

Thu, February 22, 1:15 PM

Calvary Lutheran Church, Cranford

Calvary Lutheran Church Invites You to Mid-Week ...

Religions And Spirituality

Thu, February 22, 6:00 PM

UCEDC, Cranford

Next Level Business Planning

Business & Finance

'What Stays' exposes family secrets and lies

‘What Stays’ exposes family secrets, resentment and lies

By Liz Keill

SUMMIT, NJ – In an original play by Laura Ekstrand and Jason Szamreta, the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre has provided an enlightening, funny and heart-felt view of family foibles.

Ekstrand has said that the germ of the play came from conversations with the ensemble members of the troupe, based on ...

Colleen Mahr Has Paid Her Dues, Earned Peoples’ Trust, and Left a Track Record of Success

February 20, 2018

Dear Editor:

As a 26-year-old Scotch Plains resident who cares more about the well-being of our town than about local politics, I am extremely disappointed that the Scotch Plains Democratic Committee leadership has decided to abandon Colleen Mahr in her run for Chair of the Union County Democratic Committee.

Mahr, who as Mayor of Fanwood for 15 years has worked closely with Scotch Plains ...