Third in a series of four stories about the history of the Antilles Office
If the responsibility for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Puerto Rico was a dance, it would probably be closer to the currently popular “Harlem Shuffle” than a salsa. Though responsibility for the office was shuffled over the years from New York to Panama, then to Puerto Rico, and finally to Jacksonville District, the importance of having a Corps office located on the island has never shifted. Corps civilian and military activities in Puerto Rico include administration, coastal defense projects, facilities construction on military bases and flood risk reduction, as well as maintenance and improvement of inland waterways and harbors. Specific navigation projects have included Arecibo Harbor, San Juan Harbor, and Mayaguez Harbor in Puerto Rico.
Like many of her colleagues, Carmen Mártir-Collazo, chief of administrative services in the Antilles Office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a long-time employee, with 35 years of service to the Corps. She understands the value of long-standing relationships and face-to-face contact.
“Puerto Rico is a commonwealth away from the mainland, with a unique strategic location between the U.S. and Central and South America. The presence of the Department of Defense, the deputy district engineer and Corps representatives facilitates relationships with governmental officials within our area of responsibility,” said Mártir-Collazo. “Communication in person provides for a better understanding of procedures, policies and implementation of directives, as well as resolution of any issues.
“The Corps of Engineers is one of the most trusted and serious federal agencies in Puerto Rico, where an open door exists for all individuals,” added Mártir-Collazo. She explained that the presence of the Corps, through public hearings, site inspections, construction projects and quality assurance, shows continuous service to the citizens of Puerto Rico, thus creating a bond of security and trust.
“Flood control projects, regulatory actions that protect the environment, real estate services to the Department of Defense and recruiting offices, are among those things that make the Corps very visible in the public eye,” said Mártir-Collazo.
Another long-time employee, Ernestina Miranda, known as “Ernie,” began to work with the Corps in the early 1970s. Born in 1923, retired in 1985 and still vibrant at 89, Miranda, like many Corps retirees in Puerto Rico, still maintains friendships from her days in the Corps. She was like a “godmother” and counselor to many young engineers, including Jose “Chemi” Rosado and Yamil Castillo, both of whom joined the Corps in the late 1970s. All maintain that those who work for the Corps in Puerto Rico form a close-knit family, with few ever really leaving.
As for Miranda, she saw many changes during her long tenure as the chief administrative services supervisor in the area engineer’s office. She supervised all of the administrative services in the busy office, including the clerical pool - those who did the typing, took dictation and took care of correspondence in the days before personal computers.
“We always had good communication and good relationships with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the office of the governor,” said Miranda.
In addition to the important flood-control channelization projects in Ponce, in south Puerto Rico, she also recalls Corps efforts to save and preserve one of San Juan’s historic treasures from the days of Spanish rule, the promontory of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, usually referred to as el Morro. This fortification was designed to guard the entrance to the San Juan Bay and defend the Spanish colonial port city, and stands strong today, thanks to the Corps. The work included filling caves and undermined areas, building protective walls, constructing a breakwater to lessen wave action and erosion, repairing the foundation, and constructing a stone revetment.
When he retired in July 2012 after 33 years of service, Jose Rosado, known as Chemi, was the chief of the Antilles construction office and the deputy district engineer for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Traditionally, the Antilles Office has always had an exceptional relationship with the local government. Having a Corps office located in Puerto Rico is very important, because the local leadership can work with Corps employees who speak both Spanish and English fluently, and can relate to the culture of the people on the island,” said Rosado. “The governor’s office, local representatives, mayors of the local towns, and the resident commissioner to the U.S. Congress all drop in at our office or pick up the phone at any time.”
Rosado was also in the U.S. Army Reserve for 33 years, retiring as a brigadier general. His military service helped to establish and facilitate longstanding relationships with other branches of the military in the area.
Rosado remembers his last eight years as being very exciting, with a lot of construction projects moving forward. An entire section was devoted to doing work for five different Corps districts. They supported Louisville District’s military projects; provided “Support for Others” work for Savannah District and homeland security work for Fort Worth District and civil works projects for Jacksonville District. During his tenure, the staff grew in size from 30 to 62 employees.
Two major dams were built near Ponce in the southern part of Puerto Rico: Cerillos Dam was completed in 1992, providing flood risk reduction and potable water and Portugués Dam, which also will provide flood risk reduction and recreational opportunities, was started in 2008 and is in the completion stages now. Other major projects included the Portugués and Bucana Rivers Flood Damage Reduction projects, also on the south side of the island.
“The Corps is very well thought of here. To be a Corps employee – it’s considered to be a premier job; a desirable, professional job,” said Rosado. “When people come to work for the Corps, few leave. Employees have exceptional relationships. It’s like a family. At lunchtime, you will find most of the people here eating together.”
Yamil Castillo, chief of the Antilles construction office, agrees with the importance of having a Corps office located in Puerto Rico.
“There are 4.2 million American citizens in Puerto Rico, many living in areas that are flood-prone and subject to natural disasters such as hurricanes. The Corps helps to protect these citizens and assists in local development, since we are capable of dealing with the big issues,” said Castillo.
“Puerto Rico is only 35 miles wide. When it rains, water moves quickly from the mountains into the valleys, and it only takes an hour to get to where you are. There’s not much time to react and flash-flooding was a huge problem. The Corps has several projects to take care of critical flows and carry the water at very high velocities to the discharge point on the coast. Our projects save lives,” said Castillo. “That, to me, is essential.
“In Puerto Rico, the government and local people generally see the Corps as an
‘honest broker.’ Projects or permits sometimes seem controversial due to local politics, but the Corps is usually seen as being above the controversy, and we are able to stay outside of all that. We have been successful in maintaining a good relationship with the local government through several changes in the administration,” Castillo added.
In Puerto Rico, it’s all about family, and it’s all about relationships. “We are very lucky that Jacksonville District is very supportive of our work down here,” said Rosado. “We feel like we are an integral part of the district. And even though I’m retired, I still see myself as a Corps employee.”