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VIDEO: Connecticut airmen bring aid to Puerto Rico

East Granby — A crew of 12 Connecticut airmen left here Friday morning on an aircraft loaded with 11 tons of supplies for Puerto Rico, which is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis after being slammed by Hurricane Maria earlier this month.

The crew of the C-130H cargo plane took off from Bradley Air National Guard Base just before 10 a.m. Friday for San Juan to drop off food and water but mostly equipment to support military operations on the island. On Thursday, President Donald Trump appointed a one-star Army general to coordinate recovery efforts there.

For Lt. Col. Tom "Pooch" Peralta, 43, of the Connecticut Air National Guard, Friday's mission has a personal aspect: his grandparents, who now live in the states, are originally from Puerto Rico.

"It's nice for me to be able to help out and give back where my roots are from," Peralta said, standing outside the aircraft as the crew prepared for departure.

There's limited air traffic coming in and out of the airport in San Juan as officials work to get the facility fully operational. So the crew was only planning to stay for about an hour and a half — enough time to unload the cargo, refuel and get out of the way of other aircraft coming in with supplies, Peralta said.

"There's a lot of places closer to Puerto Rico than Connecticut but we have the expertise that they need," said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was at the air base Friday to see the crew off. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman also was there.

Multiple Connecticut air crews have made trips to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Category 4 hurricane to drop off equipment such as generators, vehicles and lighting. On Tuesday, a crew of 13 Connecticut guardsmen flew to the island, which is still without electricity, to help establish and maintain communications equipment. In total, more than 100 Connecticut guardsmen have supported relief and recovery efforts.

There will be a "rapid and major increase" in the number of Connecticut guardsmen and military personnel in general responding to Puerto Rico, said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who was at the air base Friday.

"Only our military can provide the kind of logistics and communications backbone and transportations that are necessary to move the goods from the ports to the interior to the cities to the people who need them," Blumenthal said.

Officials in Puerto Rico are struggling to get the thousands of containers of supplies that have come into the San Juan port and distribute them throughout the island.

Blumenthal and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., joined with Puerto Rican community leaders to hold a news conference later Friday at the Aqui Me Quedo Restaurant in Hartford to call for increased federal response to the island. 

Malloy said at the air base Friday that Connecticut was prepared to respond to "any request" that the government of Puerto Rico makes to the state. He was anticipating an influx of Puerto Ricans coming to live in Connecticut "in the coming weeks and months if some of the statements about the condition of the island and housing, and schools, and hospitals continue to go unchanged."

There are about 250,000 Puerto Ricans living in the state, according to Malloy, who said that number could double.

Connecticut already was seeing an increase in Puerto Ricans living here, he added, due to the island's financial crisis, which started well before Maria hit. Puerto Rico has $73 billion in debt.

j.bergman@theday.com


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