Woodbury County was declared a Federal Disaster Area after flooding in March. FEMA showed up in the aftermath to assist with homeowners and businesses. One person in the forefront of that effort shared her story with Siouxland Public Media’s Sheila Brummer.
Flooding dominated the news headlines in Siouxland this year.
“Federal officials are setting up shop in town to provide help those in need.”
FEMA, along with spokesperson Rossyveth Rey-Berrios, arrived on the scene.
They will need some important documents like their social security number.”
Rossyveth Rey-Berrios, who likes to be called simply Rossy, keeps the media and the public up-to-date on developments.
“Most of the disasters I cover are between three to seven months. So, I’m out of my home most of the whole year.”
Rossy knows firsthand the devastating impact of natural disaster. Puerto Rico is her home.
“Two-thousand seventeen was a very difficult year for the island. We had two hurricanes. The first one was Irma. Then came hurricane Maria.”
“When the hurricane was traveling along the island there were three tornadoes turning around. So, that makes the hurricane stronger. Winds up to 225 mph.”
"There were houses in the center of the island gone”.
Rossy considers herself lucky. Her family and friends survived. Since her house runs on solar energy she didn’t lose power like others did for months.
“My home became family disaster center.”
As Rossy’s relatives stayed at her home, she left to help strangers.
“I had 20 soldiers, Army soldiers with me and I had a project for the first 10 days. It was very hard. There were many trees on the road. No power. And, no gas.”
Rossy has spent a dozen years working for FEMA. But, her life before the government agency brought even more excitement and intrigue. At age 19, she trained as a rescuer, eventually leading teams into Mexico and Chili in the aftermath of earthquakes. She then ended up with college degrees in photography and sound engineering. Fifteen years in the film industry included doing sound effects for some high-profile movies.
“Bond.. James Bond.”
It was eventually her work behind the camera as a professional photographer that changed the focus of her life.
“I am the eye for everybody. That’s my mission.”
“This is the devastation and this is how better you became before where you were before the disaster.”
FEMA first hired Rossy to visually document the recovery process of communities literally torn-apart by Mother Nature.
“My first assignment was Joplin, Missouri tornado which is 2011 and my first assignment out of Puerto Rico. That’s where I started with FEMA. It was really sad and it impacted me a lot.”
“Seeing that devastation and now seeing how beautiful Joplin is, how it emerged from that devastation to something so beautiful made me feel so happy.”
Since Joplin, Rossy’s responded to 21 disasters all across the U.S. also lending her expertise in translating languages. The work can be long and lonely.
Rossy arrived in Siouxland on March 27th.
REPORTER: What are your thoughts about Iowa and this region?
“This has been very peaceful and very quiet. Everybody is very relaxed. It’s a blessing.”
Another blessing? The addition of another FEMA team member.
“I’m Luis Santos Public Information Officer Spokesperson for the Small Business Office for Disaster Assistance.”
Luis Santos also comes from Puerto Rico.
“It’s been very, very satisfying time for me. Finally, I can talk to someone I can relate to. You start building relationships like family members because we are on the same mission or purpose,” said Luis Santos.
“I was excited to have someone who could speak my own language and my culture,” said Rossyveth Rey-Berrios.
Luis recently joined FEMA after a career in the business side of the music business in Miami. He returned home to care for a sick relative. Three years later, Hurricane Maria.
“I was one of the people in the streets, everyday hustling for water, 12 hours. The next day for gas. Twelve hours to 14 hours, just for 10 dollars in gas. It’s horrible and at the same time you can’t buy food because in two days it’s going to be damaged after that.”
In his quest for more assistance, Luis found FEMA.
“When I became aware of that, I said ‘you know what?’ I want that to be part of my mission.”
“I have been on the road for seven months. I miss my island. I miss the beaches over there. I miss my family even though I am fine, even though it’s been seven months of my life I’m really grateful that life has given me this opportunity. And God to have this mission and work every day.”
Before coming to Iowa, Luis supported victims of flooding in Arizona and the wildfires in California.
“With this job you have to be ready to pack and go.”
And, Luis finds the same positive experience as Rossy on this latest assignment.
“All the people I met here in Iowa they like to work, they like to work here. It’s just like Puerto Rico, they like to rebuild themselves and it’s beautiful.”
Rossy and Luis come from the same world. Both possess a kind, warm spirit for reaching out to others with all backgrounds.
Two lives, bonding a few thousand miles from their home island.
REPORTER: “Do you think you will keep in contact after this experience?”
ROSSY: “Of course, YES!”
ROSSY: Definitely, together.”
Rossy left Siouxland on May 22, 2019 to return to Puerto Rico for some time off before her next assignment. Luis is now working with FEMA in southeast Iowa.
Even through the two were candid about their work and homeland they politely declined to comment on the U.S. response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
They do want to remind people the deadline for filing for assistance in Woodbury County and other counties in the Federal Disaster Area has been extended until July 1st.