(TNS) — SANDWICH, Mass. — When Sandwich resident Chris Kluckhuhn decided to fly down to Puerto Rico to help with disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he never expected to find what he witnessed.
"It was one of the most uplifting and amazing experiences of my life," said the 43-year-old Coast Guard veteran, who runs a technology firm — Avwatch Inc. — that helps re-establish vital communications systems in the wake of disasters.
Kluckhuhn and a couple of his colleagues flew down to the city of Humacao on Oct. 18 after a private individual, whom Kluckhuhn declined to identify, offered to fund the trip.
It was several weeks after the major Category 5 hurricane, regarded as the strongest to hit the island nation in more than 80 years, tore through the Caribbean, leaving many without power and water and scores dead.
"It was an extremely difficult decision to go," Kluckhuhn said. "We didn't know the people who were asking us to go, and they didn't know anything about the logistics, and what we could expect when we got (there)."
Kluckhuhn was a helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard. Recalling a failed rescue mission during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which he attempted with his personal aircraft, Kluckhuhn said he was inspired to start his own emergency response company to help people in distressing circumstances.
The firm, which he founded in 2008, provides humanitarian relief by setting up so-called "mobile ad hoc networks" to help reconnect critical emergency infrastructure, including hospitals, military and government centers.
After some back and forth, and with many safety and logistical concerns, Kluckhuhn and a team of three others committed to journeying to the devastated region. The crew included Craig O'Hearn, of Manomet, Marcus Tooker, who grew up in Barnstable, and Ryan Kowalske, of Ohio. They filled seven bags with dried food, ready-made meals and cases of water.
The difficulty was they only had the name of a single Puerto Rican resident, Christine Enid Nieves Rodriguez, who runs a community center in Mariana that helps feed struggling Puerto Ricans. The center feeds some 350 people every day.
"Went down there borderline blind," said Tooker, Avwatch's vice president. "I called no fewer than 70 places to find a place to sleep. I couldn't find anything."
The team secured an Airbnb in Yabucoa, a town close to where the storm first came ashore, between the rubble of homes. Using his four-seat aircraft — a modified Cessna 182 — Kluckhuhn and his crew flew to different parts of the island, locating existing Wi-Fi connections in order to spread them across distances wirelessly. The process is referred to as "signal hopping."
Within 24 hours of arriving, the team found Rodriguez at La Loma and extended an internet connection from Humacao up to her location. The gesture allowed families to connect with loved ones.
"Seeing someone connect with their family for the first time in a month using the capability we delivered is heartwarming," Kluckhuhn said. "There was genuine relief and happiness that is hard to quantify."
What he saw throughout the course of his stay was inspiring, he said.
"One of the first people I met was a pediatrician from California serving meals to people," he said. "Everywhere you looked, you saw neighbors helping neighbors. There were just numerous examples of people living in very difficult, long-term circumstances, but still figuring out how to share what they've had with others who didn't have anything."
Kluckhuhn and members of his crew were not the only emergency responders who sprung to action with ties to the Cape and Islands. Provincetown police Officer Simon Saliba flew down in early October to help enforce curfews and other security tasks. As of Tuesday, Saliba completed his mission, according to a Provincetown Police Department Facebook post.
The crew returned Friday, having logged some 12,500 miles — roughly 108 hours — of flight time while on the island.
©2017 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.