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Local crew returns from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico

Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash. — Kimberly Cauvel Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash.

Feb. 13--Vadim Melnik spent the past month struggling to navigate Puerto Rico's hurricane-damaged roads, communicate with its predominantly Spanish-speaking residents and reduce hazards at affected homes.

Yet as he prepared Friday to return to Washington, part of him longed to stay.

"It's kind of bittersweet. I've grown attached to Puerto Rico just because the people are so friendly and I just love it. I miss home, but if somebody asked me to stay, I just might," he said.

Melnik of Mount Vernon is one of six Skagit County residents who went to Puerto Rico to provide hurricane relief as part of the Washington Conservation Corps.

They were deployed a month ago to help affected Puerto Ricans move back into their homes or reduce hazards at their homes, and provide access to clean water and donated food.

Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20. Much of the island, which is a U.S. territory, remains in disrepair and many residents are still without power, according to Associated Press reports.

Melnik was part of a disaster response team stationed in Aibonito with his supervisor Nelson Lee and other members of their home crew. They lived and worked alongside Washington Conservation Corps members from throughout the state and AmeriCorps members from throughout the country.

Lee, who works for the state Department of Ecology, oversees a five-member Washington Conservation Corps crew based out of Bay View State Park.

Washington Conservation Corps is an AmeriCorps program managed by Ecology.

Lee said he was a crew member himself before becoming a supervisor. Lee, 28, and Melnik, 21, said they joined the corps for similar reasons: They were looking for experience in the conservation field.

"I had graduated from college at Western Washington University. I knew I was interested in conservation work and I needed some boots-on-the-ground experience," Lee said.

They've gotten much more through the disaster response component, including friendships with fellow Washington Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps members from outside Skagit County, travel experience and the feeling of accomplishment.

Ecology spokesman Curt Hart said the Washington Conservation Corps is often called in on natural disasters because crew members have experience working with equipment such as chain saws.

In January, 114 Washington Conservation Corps members joined thousands of others involved in AmeriCorps programs aiding communities in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that were hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria in the fall, according to a news release.

That marked the largest Washington Conservation Corps deployment since the program began in 1984, according to the release.

Over the years, Washington Conservation Corps crews have been sent to dozens of areas throughout the U.S.

Lee said he was sent to Louisiana following flooding in 2017, to Oso south of Skagit County following a deadly landslide in 2014 and to several wildfires.

In Puerto Rico, he found that the disaster response team was closer than ever.

"We've had to rely on our group a lot more than in past deployments because very few of us speak Spanish," Lee said. "(Puerto Rico has) got its own culture. Every one of the states have their own culture, but here in Puerto Rico it's different in a lot of ways, from the people, the food, the way we drive around and navigate the island -- pretty much everything."

Melnik said challenges included the language barrier, a different street address system and the damaged infrastructure that made getting to neighborhoods in need hectic.

Yet the Skagit County team worked six days a week to find homes in need of repairs.

The crew used chain saws to remove trees blocking entrances to homes or that were threatening to fall on them. They climbed onto leaking roofs to secure tarps or seal cracks using concrete. And they stripped walls and applied sprays to prevent residents from being exposed to mold.

While the work was rewarding, Melnik said the most memorable part of the experience was the way the Puerto Ricans expressed their appreciation.

"You finish work at someone's house and they are very thankful and often give you a kiss on the cheek. ... They are a very kind-hearted people. It has been such an honor to serve them," he said.

Melnik said after finishing a project and preparing to leave a home, a Spanish-speaking man who lived there made frantic motions, moving his hand to his mouth to indicate eating. His wife was cooking, and he wanted the crew to stay and share the meal.

"There are numerous stories of interactions with homeowners and awesome meals that were cooked and funny stories," Lee said. "Aside from the hard work that we're doing out here, the interaction with the people is a huge part of our job."

Lee also experienced firsthand the reaction of Puerto Ricans as they realized the team was there to help.

"It's extremely rewarding. A lot of these people are just, just the idea that a group of people from Washington state show up at their door wanting to help them at no cost, just hearing that, the people are thrilled," he said.

Melnik said there were some emotional moments.

"Some (people) break down in tears of joy to learn that someone came to help them just for the sake of doing it," he said.

And despite the hurricane damage and the slow recovery on the island, many Puerto Ricans remain positive.

"The people of Puerto Rico are very resilient," Melnik said. "I saw a house once that was in absolute ruins and there was a sign hanging on the door that said 'Happy every day.'"

When not called on for disaster response Washington Conservation Corps members keep busy throughout the state, planting millions of trees, and building and maintaining hundreds of miles of trails.

The program employs military veterans and those ages 18 to 25 for terms of up to a year.

Members may serve a maximum of two terms, during which they work full time for minimum wage and receive health benefits, an education stipend that can be used to pay student loans or to go to school, and training in forestry or emergency response.

Melnik, who was hired in October, said he's looking forward to getting back to work once he's home. He and the other members who returned to their Bay View station from Puerto Rico over the weekend will resume local projects today.

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-- Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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