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"I was witness to what seemed to be a post-apocalyptic world — numerous dead animals, a boat lodged in trees 20 feet off the ground, corpses and coffins washed away from cemeteries, metal siding and roofing twisted into ornamental pretzels," he said.

"Nearly half of the trees being uprooted, vehicles crushed and turned upside down, homes torn apart and stripped down to frames, the remnants of a rain forest with trees and plants being stripped of nearly all foliage, and a washing machine ending up approximately a half mile from its original location."

Caldwell is branch chief of the Mechanical Systems and Analysis Branch of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, and last fall the call went out to all government agencies asking for six-week volunteers to help FEMA with Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas and Hurricane Irma sufferers in Florida. He and his wife Lee Ann discussed it and decided it was "a no-brainer."

Caldwell, who already had a top security clearance, was pulled out of his training class of 150 to become part of a FEMA disaster survivor assistance group of 40 people. They are the first to visit an area to assess the victims’ urgent needs, register them for future assistance and provide data back to the operations center.

"When they knew we were coming, they would line up. When we arrived, they started applauding and touching us to see if we were real," Caldwell recalled. "We were in our FEMA vests and trying to help as many people as we could. I felt like a rock star, everyone waiting for us to arrive."

"Our team encountered hundreds and hundreds of people who had lost virtually everything, seeking shelter, food and water," Caldwell said. "The most memorable cases include an elderly mute man who broke down crying as he thought he couldn’t adequately communicate his needs."

"One fellow, his house was gone but he insisted he did not want to register with us because he said he knew ‘other people are in greater need than me,’" Caldwell remembered. "A lot of families were helping one another out. Those not hit as hard or whose residences were constructed out of concrete helped those who’d been living in wooden houses."

The crew would give assistance where needed. Once, seeing a Red Cross staff that was short-handed, they stopped to carry 20 to 50 pounds of provisions a few hundred yards to survivor vehicles, helping more than 4,500 people by the end of the day.

"I also had a number of opportunities to get my ‘fix-it’ fix," Caldwell said. "Outside of helping with IT and system admin functions when out in the field, I was able to repair a door at a homeless shelter, repair a mayor’s CB radio, troubleshoot a police vehicle ignition system, repair a survivor’s generator, install a washing machine in a medical center and repair a leaking tire for one of our field vehicles."

"What really made a difference for our team’s performance was the inclusion of younger, college-bound Puerto Ricans who served as our interpreters … intelligent and dedicated individuals who were extremely proud to help their island — and they had a great sense of humor that I frequently tapped into," he said.

By the end of his 45-day assignment, Caldwell said he was impressed by the signs of recovery — roads being cleared, power restored to critical infrastructure and medical centers, repairs made to residential and commercial structures, and cellphones coming to life.

NASA recently recognized Caldwell with a medal, but he also wants to credit those who filled in for him while he was gone. He noted there was also an adjustment when he returned to his desk job, and he appreciated being able to flip on a light switch again.

"I’m still in contact with a number of people I met down there, including the college students who were our interpreters," he said. "I promised I would go back. My wife and I might take a vacation to Puerto Rico and see what the island looks like when it is lush."