Over the past four months, Jim DeGraff spent just two weeks at home in Alaska. The rest of the time, he was in disaster areas, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to help the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The storms damaged thousands of homes and public facilities and left many of the islands’ communities without power or water service. USACE mobilized teams from across the country to support response and recovery efforts in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). DeGraff, who works on Fort Wainwright as part of the USACE Alaska District, volunteered to be assigned to the hurricane relief missions.
“Any chance I get an opportunity to help somebody, I’m going to try my best to do that,” he said.
In response to hurricanes Irma and Maria, he traveled to St. Croix, where he was assigned to the USACE Infrastructure Assessment team out of the USACE Recovery Field Office U.S. Virgin Islands to ensure critical public facilities like schools and police stations were safe to resume operation.
“Literally people’s faces would light up when they saw you,” he said, remembering the response when residents found out he worked for USACE. “They were so grateful and so happy to see you. Many hugs and many smiles.”
DeGraff spent 43 days in the U.S. Virgin Islands, returned home to Alaska for two weeks, then got a call asking if he would consider volunteering in Puerto Rico. He agreed, and has been working with the Critical Public Facilities team out of the USACE Recovery Field Office Puerto Rico in San Juan for more than 60 days. He remains dedicated to the mission here, and recently extended for an additional 30-day assignment.
Seeing how much the communities in Puerto Rico still need, and having the ability to help, keeps DeGraff motivated month after month, working 12-hour days, seven days a week, he said.
“Every place you go, they’re looking for help, they need help, so that gives you a reason to keep going and try to do the best you can,” he said.
One of the most memorable and rewarding moments for DeGraff came when his team helped young students return to school on St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“They were hugging their teachers and just happy to be back, playing with the other kids,” he said. “It’s a nice thing to see that you’ve helped them get back to their education, and that will help them further down the road in life hopefully.”
DeGraff’s work in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is the latest in a long history of service. He spent eight years in the U.S. Army, and, after running his own construction business for more than 20 years, returned to public service as a civilian working first for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and then the Army.