Inside WRAL

Behind the scenes: Our emotional visit to St. Thomas

Posted September 24

Editor's Note: WRAL photojournalist Richard Adkins accompanied Ken Smith on a trip to St. Thomas last week to check on Smith's family and take a look at the damage Hurricane Irma brought to the community. Here, he reflects on the life-changing trip.

Irma's Impact: Fort Bragg in USVI

This was not the first time I found myself shooting video of troops at Fort Bragg waiting to deploy -- I've done that story many of times. Reporter Ken Smith and I have embedded with military units before -- Ken three times overseas to places like Afghanistan, and me with the 82nd Airborne going to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

C17 waiting to take us to St. Thomas

Ken Smith, Richard Adkins visit St. Thomas after Irma

This time was different, though, because, this time, I was going with them.

Ken and I embedded with the 602nd Medical Company of the 44th Medical Brigade. Their mission was, and still is, to help the hospital in St. Thomas provide medical care after the hospital was nearly destroyed in Hurricane Irma.

We loaded into a C-17 already packed with a half-dozen FLCs (Field Litter Carriers), which are basically the army's version of an ambulance, pallets of medical gear and about 30 other humans. The trip to St. Thomas was about three and a half hours.

Eating local in Puerto Rico

After landing, unloading the gear and checking in, in true Army style we loaded everything we had on our backs and walked all the way around to the far side of the airport. We started shooting video and crafting a story right away.

While Ken was writing, I began poking around the ruins of the airport and discovered the wift still worked at the American Airline ticket counter. Score! We we were able to edit a story and send it in using that signal. Just as the story was finished sending, it was time to move. Ken and I quickly found our place on the totem pole -- the bottom. We were stuffed in the back of one of those windowless FLCs with no air conditioning and packed with gear.

It was hot, humid and raining heavily at times.

My sleep and work area

In Army convoy style, we made the trip to the hospital. Ken held the door slightly ajar so we could get some air and see some of the damage. At the hospital we were met with a rainbow, and we took that as a sign, because things started to come together. The hospital put the 602nd up in the fourth floor of the heavily damaged hospital. I snagged an unoccupied office to work and sleep in while some of the 602nd managed to snag some patient rooms with beds.

Rainbow

The air conditioning almost worked (it blew moist air as the dust work was saturated with rain water), but we had electricity and occasional wifi. It takes a lot of time and internet bandwidth to send our stories in, and the occasional internet was really working for me.

With a few minutes to kill while we were waiting in the hospital, I wandered around, and, without going in to detail, let's just say I found myself some nice, fast, dependable internet I could feed to my work space. Score!

We tested the Live-U unit and, unbelievably, it got a great signal and worked like a champ. We were able to go live from St. Thomas. The live location in the hospital parking lot was pretty cool, with Army Tents and trucks in the background, but we wanted to step it up a bit. We got access to the roof, and, by removing a grate and crawling through an access point in the firewall, we found ourselves set up with one of the most beautiful panoramic views in St. Thomas.

View from the roof

Ken grew up on St. Thomas, and his mom, dad and other family still there, so we spent a day going to visit them. Ken arranged for one of his cousins to pick us up, and off we headed to cross the island, see the devastation and visit his parents. I took a small Osmo camera with me, and, using that and my big fancy TV camera, we captured his reaction to the damage Irma caused.

All was going well until Maria decided to head for the islands. We had to get out. The Army had orders to go aboard a Navy ship and ride out the storm, but that scenario didn't really work for us. Through his contacts, Ken was able to secure us a ride off the island. We headed for San Juan, Puerto Rico. But, of course, it wasn't easy. The big fancy TV camera decided it no longer wanted to record. Plan B was in order. Using the small DJI Osmo camera, we shot the last story and went live from the beach outside our hotel. The next morning we headed home.

Our vessel home

Ken and I wished we could have spent more time in St. Thomas, because we didn't get the chance to get out among the islanders when Maria cut our assignment short. Still, we told some good stories and, hopefully, gave the viewers something they would not have had without us.

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