Hiller and FEMA disaster specialist Ed Budnick (right) during a tour of eastern Puerto Rico with other FEMA co-workers. Budnick was dispatched to Puerto Rico for four months as part of the U.S. Government’s response to Hurricane Maria, the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico’s history.

by Pete Mazzaccaro

“A lot of people ask me for comparisons to Katrina,” said Ed Budnick, a Hill resident who works as a project specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Katrina [which hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005] was a big fat category 3. Maria was 1 mph shy of being a 5. So it was 5. It hit the whole island. It hit everything.”

Budnick, a former director of the Chestnut Hill Community Association spoke with the Local last week after returning from a four-month stay in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he was in charge of processing debris collection and removal. While he was there, he gathered up fallen hardwood trees and set them aside for proper lumbering, cleaned 800 miles of coastline beaches and generally worked to restore infrastructure – buildings, electric grids, roads, bridges, etc. – that had been demolished by Hurricane Maria.

Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. It was the 10th strongest hurricane ever recorded and is the greatest natural disaster to ever strike the island. It demolished homes, felled many trees in the island’s extensive forests and laid waste to what was an already struggling electrical grid. Power across the island was off for months and is only now close to being restored to what it was.

Budnick, who has been with FEMA for 10 years, has spent his time out of his District 3 office in Philadelphia handling mostly nearby disasters Recently he’s been in South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia, handling snow disasters and major floods. Last year, West Virginia had a 500-year flood event. Budnick was called to help.

“I’m one of the guys who when I show up, people say, ‘Uh oh. If Ed’s here, it must be bad,’” Budnick said.

When he’s not managing disaster responses, Budnick teaches emergency response at a government run Emergency Management Institute in Maryland. He’s one of three or four people who specialize in recovery of infrastructure, he said.

That status means he’s often called to manage an aspect of any FEMA response. And Puerto Rico was a disaster unlike many before it.

Budnick was dispatched to Puerto Rico on Oct. 20. He and his team first set up offices in the San Juan Convention Center, but soon relocated to an empty office building south of the city center. He was issued a driver and a translator. He hired staff to get FEMA’s operations up to speed.  When he finally left the island last month, he said he felt like FEMA’s office was in good shape.

“We’re going to be there a while,” he said, “five to 10 years, easy. I mean, we’re still involved in the Northridge Earthquake [which hit California in 1994]. We still have a presence in response to Katrina.”

Budnick was in charge of a lot of cleanup projects in his time in Puerto Rico. Two projects of note were the saving of millions of dollars of felled hardwood trees and a massive cleanup effort of the island’s 800 miles of coastal beaches. The beach cleanup is something he said he’s particularly proud of.

“With debris, the book says anything in an unimproved area is ineligible,” Budnick said. “Looking at the beaches, the book said you don’t do it. But I went to several groups to find out what would happen if we did nothing.

“I asked someone with FEMA Corps (an organization of young workers like AmeriCorps) what would happen if we did nothing. He said, ‘well the $3 billion tourist industry goes down the tubes.’ I asked local conservation groups about bio luminescent bays in Puerto Rico, of which there are three. If not saved, they’d wipe out four species of sea turtles. OK. That’s bad. So I made a case for cleaning up 800 miles of beach.”

A wrecked home near Playa la Palmas on Puerto Rico’s north coast.

Budnick similarly organized hiring saw mills to handle hardwood preservation – most of it mahogany, that if piled in the mud would have rotted and been useless.

“I was told there’s about $5 to $10 million worth of just raw hardwood,” he said.

Budnick said the Puerto Rican response while he was there was almost entirely temporary work – making sure infrastructure was secure and electric systems patched while larger and more permanent repairs are planned and paid for. Last year, Congress approved a $36.5 billion aid package, though Puerto Rican officials said they believed it would take $95 billion to recover from the storm’s massive damage.

Rudnick said he did get the chance to relax a bit. He went on tours of the island, many to assess damage, but did get to see some sites, including a minor rain forest in Humacao, Puerto Rico, near Punta Santiago, a site of serious flooding during Maria.

“After a month, we finally got Sundays off,” Budnick said. “We used that time to eat, imbibe, relax and get sun.”

Budnick said his next task is going to be to assess the readiness of his office, District 3 – which includes Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and the Virginias – to handle similar Type 1 disasters at home.

“That’s what I’m going to do on Monday when I’m back at the office,” he said. “We learned a lot in Puerto Rico. We learned what 6 million cubic yards of debris looks like – Mountains

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