The following is a press release from SUNY Cortland. It has been republished with permission.
Two months after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, Matt Green ’12 knows how much still needs to be done on the island.
Green, who works for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, saw the devastation firsthand in October, traveling there on a work-related relief trip to help rebuild San Juan’s major airport.
More than 2,000 people still are living in shelters, while the nation’s power grid is operating at 41 percent capacity, according to a recent report in The New York Times. All told, the U.S. territory has requested $94.4 billion in federal aid to help with long-term recovery from the Sept. 20 hurricane.
“Speaking to what I saw myself, it seemed almost insurmountable,” said Green, who served as chief of SUNY Cortland Emergency Medical Services (EMS) when he was a student. “People still were in desperate need of food and water. There were a lot of homes without roofs. I don’t think I saw a working traffic light the entire time I was there.”
Green went to Puerto Rico with a group of approximately 80 coworkers from the Port Authority, making a two-week trip that was part of a larger, month-long effort to help restore several seaports and the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan. They were fulfilling an Emergency Management Assistance Compact request, or an agreement that serves as the cornerstone of the nation’s mutual aid system.
On a typical workday in New York City, Green works as an emergency communications specialist and a watch desk supervisor. That means he uses social media and other platforms to communicate with the public during events such as major accidents or natural disasters. It’s a full-time job that matches his degree in new communication media with his leadership experience from SUNY Cortland EMS.
The hurricane relief effort, however, was a trip back in time to Green’s roots as an emergency medical technician (EMT). His role in Puerto Rico didn’t involve Twitter or Instagram. Instead, he served as an emergency manager among a group of Port Authority engineers, electricians and port and aviation specialists, primarily helping with the logistics of moving equipment and acting as a safety person on job sites where his team rebuilt security fencing.
Green passed all of the credit to his fellow Port Authority colleagues.
“No one took a day off,” he said, noting that some of the Port Authority’s first responders opted to sleep in airport terminals. “They woke up early in the morning, worked through oppressive heat and basically had to be pulled off of work sites at the end of the day. It was inspiring.”
Green and his crew members worked even on their weekend days off — rebuilding homes, running humanitarian missions and bringing relief supplies to places that had not seen them. He said the resilience of Puerto Rico’s residents equaled the work ethic of the Port Authority team.
“They’re still going to work, they’re rebuilding their homes and they’re not giving up,” said Green, who grew up in Commack, N.Y., and now resides in Hoboken, N.J. “The Puerto Rican community needs our help, but they’re doing a great job.”
Besides the overall level of destruction, Green said he was moved by the emotional goodbyes that took place each day in the airport, when crying parents sent their children to live elsewhere. He thought back to a communication studies course he took with Professor Caroline Kaltefleiter, Issues in Digital Culture, which put empathy at the center of classroom discussions and assignments.
“All of my ability to empathize — the reason I became interested in social media and how it affects the world around us — has to do with Dr. K’s class,” he said. “Every day we’d show up with an issue that we wanted to solve or debate or discuss. That type of work opens your eyes to what’s going on around you and how it affects your everyday life.”
In a similar way, the most pivotal college experiences of Green’s undergraduate career involved SUNY Cortland EMS, a close-knit community of student emergency responders. Membership exploded during Green’s four years as a student and the agency never missed any of its 400 to 500 annual calls on campus. But just as important as the tangible emergency response skills he developed were the people he met — friends who turned into family members for a lifetime.
“The people who supported me then are the same people who support me now,” he said, recalling how club members picked up each other’s spirits during finals week stress and moments of loss. “(SUNY Cortland EMS) is my family.”
For instance, when Green was a senior in 2011, he led a small group that helped flood victims in New York state’s Southern Tier during the aftermath of Tropical Storm Lee. During the trip, former club advisor Michael Holland died suddenly from a heart attack — a devastating experience that ultimately brought EMS members closer together.
Puerto Rico offered the same type of perspective.
When he arrived there, Green saw considerable destruction and desperation. In time, however, he found inspiration through the people around him.