Cobi Norris takes on the hurricane

Blackhawk crew chief helps Maria’s victims

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Unlike the nearby beach town of Arecibo, this 350-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus remained standing after Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico. / Photo by Cobi Norris

There is no doubt for the people in its wake, 2017 will be known as the Year of the Hurricane.

In early September, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, struck the islands of the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, and the mainland United States. That was on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded Houston with over 50 inches of rain.

With 185 mile-per-hour winds, Irma is estimated to have killed 134 people throughout the region, causing almost 100 billion dollars in damage.

On Sept. 20, another Category 5 hurricane, Maria, struck Puerto Rico. It is considered the worst natural disaster in recorded history for the small United States territory. With 175 mile-per-hour winds, it killed nearly 1,000 Puerto Rican residents.

Maria caused over 100 billion dollars in damage, but more tragically, it left behind an apocalyptic scenario, in the complete destruction of housing and infrastructure, a communication blackout that separated families and any news of assistance from the outside world, and destroyed much of the natural beauty and vegetation that provides life. There was both flooding and thirst. It left the island without power for weeks.

Blackhawk

In response to the devastation, the United States Army sent servicemen and servicewomen to help the victims of Irma and Maria. Wayne County’s Cobi Norris was one of those troops dispatched to Florida for several days, and then on to Puerto Rico for a month and a half.

Norris lit on the island Sept. 27.

“It was definitely chaos,” Norris said. “We showed up a little bit after the hurricane. I was there for 45 days, but my unit was there for 47. When we got there, it looked pretty torn up, because we were at a run-down airfield. We couldn’t really judge anything by where we were, because we hadn’t seen the rest of the island yet.

“I’m a Blackhawk crew chief, so I went out and did missions. I’m a mechanic. I fix everything on a helicopter besides minor detail things, where we have special people to do those jobs. As medivac, we have a medic and a crew chief in the back.

“As a crew chief, I basically make sure we’re not going to run into anything. I’m the environment eyes.

“Our name is Shadow Dustoff from the 101st Airborne. It’s a huge honor to be Dustoff. Our battalion motto is ‘shadow the eagle.’ When the Army needs it done, they call the 101.

“One of the biggest things, people didn’t know how to approach the Blackhawk to get inside. Sometimes people get excited, and they don’t pay attention. We didn’t have any big issues, but it makes you a little nervous sometimes.

“For the most part we did search and rescue. The biggest thing was resupply. We distributed food and water throughout the entire island.

“The outside is entirely beaches and small towns, and a few big cities like Aguadilla, San Juan [the capital], and Ponce. Not even 10 miles in, it’s entirely mountainous. We did a lot of resupply through the mountainous areas.

“It ended up, FEMA stepped in, helping us out throughout the island. We went from resupply to patient transfer. People up in the mountains, it’s not exactly easy or convenient for them to drive to a hospital—it’s a lot easier for us to airlift them.

“There was one hospital in San Juan, it was getting so many people, we ended up taking people out to the U.S.S. Comfort who really needed help. That was a great experience to help them—it was awesome.”

The residents of Puerto Rico made a deep impression on Norris.

“The people were respectful,” Norris said. “They made things easier.

“There were quite a few injured [in the hurricane]. Everything got wiped out—if it was a regular house, the roof was ripped off, almost every single one of them.

“Seeing people grateful is the highlight. We stopped in quite a few villages, and they’d drop on their knees and start crying. It was heartwarming.

“The biggest thing I learned, everywhere you go, you can’t judge a book by its cover. I had heard things about Puerto Rico, but it’s a different place [than people think]. We were a little scared going in, because we didn’t know what to expect. The people were amazing. They took us in like we were theirs.”

Walgreens

Because of what was left after the hurricane season, the death toll is misleading. Maria is still taking casualties today.

“I was on medivac duty,” Norris said. “They brought someone in, and said she’d had a heart attack in the car. She got evacuated across the airfield. They knew where we were, because we’d been there for a month. We took care of her and had her ready to go. It was chaos trying to do everything at once.”

In this case, they were able to save the woman’s life. If there had not been someone there to help, she most likely would have died. The Army saved her.

“It was for a good cause,” Norris said. “We know what to do, and we go do it. We had eight helicopters, and we had some doing patient transfers and rescue, and mostly we were resupply right off the bat. I didn’t do a whole lot of patient transfer—that’s not a bad thing, because that meant less people that got hurt.

“There was a pregnant woman—she had to be in her mid-30s. We dropped into a pretty tight [landing zone] up in the northeastern corner of the mountainous area. I was unloading the aircraft. We had a medic. We also had a translator, because neither of us knew Spanish. We needed to know where we were needed, and where places weren’t hurting as bad as others.

“There was a group of 50 to 60 people standing in front of us. They were grateful. Through the interpreter, the pregnant woman lost it, dropped to her knees and thanked us. It was pretty touching. I got goosebumps when I hopped out and looked over—that was probably the highlight of the entire Puerto Rico trip for me.”

Norris saw the hospitals as being able to handle the emergency, supported by the military, but running on generator power.

“They might’ve been a little understaffed, but they were doing pretty good for what they had,” Norris said. “There are places that probably still do not have power to this day.

“Fajardo was the biggest area they focused on. There were no days off. We got to go exploring for a few hours. Just getting to see it was cool—it’s a beautiful place. You’d see houses every mile or two [in the mountains]. They had some crazy roads going up to them.

“[The residents] mostly speak Spanish. You have some that speak English.

“We transferred a nine-year-old boy who’d had two strokes.”

“He said it felt good to help the people,” explained Norris’ mother, Janice Bellon. “I’m really proud of him. They needed the help there. [Members of the Army] were the only ones that could get to the remote areas.”

“The people in the cities had a few stores, but obviously they got bought out real quick,” Norris said. “Walgreens was one of the only places open and would take a credit card, because it was really hard to get a hold of cash over there. We obviously had to get showering stuff and things like that.

“I was checking out one day. This little boy who had to be seven or eight came up to me. Somehow, he had read my nametags when I was doing resupply.

“He just tapped me on the arm and said, ‘Hey, I remember you. You gave my family food, and we hadn’t eaten in three days.’ I was just blown away that he even remembered me.

“Before he left, he said in perfect English, ‘Thank you, and have a blessed day.’”

During his stay on the island, Norris and his crew made ABC television news.

“From an army standpoint, it was a huge morale boost,” Norris said. “It brought us all together. Learning your job better is a big part. We’re also going to deploy in the future, so doing something like that brings you so much closer, and gets everybody ready for going downrange.”

Norris is on an eight-day leave for Christmas in Wayne County. He expects deployment soon, somewhere in the Middle East.

Appropriately enough, Norris departed Puerto Rico on Veterans Day.

NASA

Norris graduated from Seymour Community High School in 2013, therefore he is familiar with natural disasters, as a tornado struck his hometown in March of 2017. He grew up a few blocks from the school, which was partially destroyed during the storm. Perhaps it was appropriate, then, he was deployed to help Puerto Rico during the Year of the Hurricane.

Both of his parents attended Wayne Community High School. His mother was a member of the last class to attend both years of junior high in nearby Cambria, which is now an unincorporated town.

Cobi was a four-sport athlete, leading the Warriors’ eight-man football team in interceptions his senior year. It was his favorite sport; he played running back and cornerback, and led Seymour in kickoff return yards.

“My senior year, I mostly played quarterback, but our starting running back tore his ACL the first play of the first game,” Norris said. “Kalvin Walker—he’s in the Air Force, now, over in the UK. So, I got moved to running back. I played pretty much every position.

“I miss the down-to-earth people [in southern Iowa]. It’s definitely a lot different from the rest of the world I’ve seen. Being in Kentucky—it’s way different. I miss quiet.”

For almost two years, Norris worked at the Hy-Vee warehouse in Chariton, before transferring to a Hy-Vee store in Webster City. He then worked at Midwest Fence & Gate Company in Fort Dodge, where his father Matthew Norris lives. But Cobi always knew the situation was temporary, and he would soon act on his plans.

On Feb. 23, 2016 Norris enlisted in the United States Army.

“It had always been a dream to join the Army or the Air Force,” Norris said. “I wanted something to do with aircraft, so I became a crew chief.

“First, I want to get better at my job and get ready for the deployment. It’s coming up. Getting through that will be another milestone.

“After that, I’m going to college for aeronautics and aerospace technology. The dream is to transfer to the Air Force or the Navy and be a jet pilot, and then work for NASA, eventually. It’s been a dream since I was six years old. It will take a while. Something like that doesn’t come easy.

“Aeronautics is an associate’s degree. Then you branch out to either aerospace technology or aeronautical science.”

The first step for Norris is therefore Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“I’m at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and we have an Embry-Riddle on Fort Campbell,” Norris said. “The Army will actually pay for your college. To get promoted in the Army, nowadays you need college. It’s better to do it while you’re in [the service], because you have a lot more options. They’re definitely there to help you out.

“Being a Blackhawk maintainer, I can get an Airframe and Powerplant license, which certifies me to work on basically any airframe in the civilian world, so I could work for the FAA.

“If I do end up getting my degree relatively quickly, I’m going to do ROTC and go to commissioned officer in the Air Force. You can’t wait too long. If I went commissioned officer as a pilot in the Air Force, I would stay in and retire from the Air Force.

“From there, I would go on the NASA journey.”

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