disaster · health care · Logistic · Puerto Rico · sports · Trump

On Federal Response to Puerto Rico: Armchair Quarterbacking in a Vacuum of Knowledge

A couple of weeks ago, recently retired NFL Quarterback Tony Romo did color commentary on the game between my beloved Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans. The response to Room’s commentary was overwhelmingly positive and also in awe: how did Romo know what the play would be? How come Romo was able to point out a defensive look and know that Carr would change the play?  Is Romo a soothsayer?

No. Romo was an NFL quarterback and he was doing what every NFL quarterback does. Tony Romo wasn’t a magician. He was showing what NFL quarterbacks HAVE to know. He was pointing out things that are obvious to a student of the game, i.e., they showed a weak side blitz, QB saw it and is changing the play.  And most of all he is making sense of the situation and showing people what is really going on.

The armchair quarterbacks were blown away.  The real quarterback was giving them a lesson without telling them he was educating them. Tony Romo made it seem so effortless, especially for a man who was so well regarded as one who choked when everything was on the line

Tony Romo was armchair quarterbacking and was damned good at it because he was a quarterback and a damned good one. (Disclosure: my love of the Oakland Raiders is nearly matched by my hatred of the Dallas Cowboys. So the respect I have for Romo is really really difficult to put out there.)

Disaster Response is like Quarterbacking – a LOT More Goes Into It Than the Lay Understanding

Some disclosures about me. One thing is that I was an officer in the Army. My specialty was Transportation and multifunctional logistics. From strategic trucking and tactical trucking to setting up Arrival and Departure Air Control Groups to Rail and Overseas Shipping Operations (most don’t know this: the second largest fleet in the world belongs to the US Army). Part of my job was having a basic handle on how to move personnel, provisions and equipment from point A to point B over land, air and sea. I have an appreciation for what it takes to set up and maintain a port.

Disclosure 2: I have a lot of training in disaster response. I have certifications in a number of disaster response related issues because I personally thought it a good idea to know what the hell happens and what to do when a disaster hits. I got weary of wondering “why didn’t he do this!”

The funny thing about education on a topic is that the more you know, the more you know why he didn’t do what ignorant me thought he should do but what educated me understands why he did.

It is thus something that I find both normal and irritating. People think they know how somebody should approach a problem. They see suffering in Puerto Rico and say, “we should do something to stop this? How can we just let this happen?”

Well, hold on, ignoramus. By saying that you have demonstrated a few things. Chief among them is a lack of appreciation of the framework of emergency response. Second is a lack of understanding of logistics. And third, and probably most important, is unconscious incompetence – you have no idea what you don’t know.

Puerto Rico Presents Unique Challenges

President Donald Trump has been ridiculed for pointing out that Puerto Rico is an island and the Atlantic Ocean is big. Those who are ignorant of logistics and the National Response Framework mock him. Those of us who know shake our heads at his lack of communication but understand exactly what he means.

The President is right that the Atlantic Ocean is large. He is right – Puerto Rico is an island. Inherent in this are two things: (1) we can’t truck in supplies: and (2) it will take time after needs are identified to get them there.

The way the system is set up is as follows. First, localities have authority. They are the baseline. It makes sense because a city or county has a better grasp on what they need than a country. When the locality has needs in excess of its ability to respond it goes to the state. If the state can’t handle it, it looks to its neighbors. Then it looks to the Feds.

It doesn’t mean the Feds aren’t involved. The Feds are keeping an eye on things to see how it can assist but the Feds are NOT in control.

There are also steps. The first of which is “assessment.” The locality before, during and after the emergency identifies the situation. Makes sense. Then it identifies a goal and what is required. Again, makes sense – constant reassessment is a given. Then the needs are requested. If the locality, state or neighboring states can’t provide it, the Feds step in.

Puerto Rico is an island. And it is a good distance away from US assets. For anything from the Feds or neighboring states to get there it has to come in by ship or by plane. Period.

If anyone would bother to take a look at the situation, Puerto Rico’s ports have just reopened. Most of these ports have reopened with restrictions. This means that the ports are so damaged that it is hazardous for normal operations. Ports will accept new vessels only during the day or will only accept vessels with a shallow draft. Or both!

The airports are also now reopening with restrictions. When power is unavailable, Air Traffic Control is also implicated. Aircraft colliding over an airport is bad. Ships colliding or grounding in a channel is bad.

Astronaut Hoot Gibson stated Hoot’s Law as follows: “No matter how bad things seem you can always make them worse.” Thus operations in seaports and airports are limited. And provides a perfect explanation of why assistance isn’t reaching Puerto Rico – it CAN’T.

Hopefully Hawaii is keeping a keen eye on this. It isn’t a matter of “if” Hawaii will get clobbered. It’s “when.”

Learn About the System in Place, And Ask Questions Before Concluding

People are suffering and it’s a terrible thing. The natural thing to think is that “we should be doing more.”

Inherent in the statement is that we are not already doing all we CAN.  The emergency managers are almost certainly not misanthropes. I don’t think that they get off on human suffering.

Rather, they are dealing with constraints. Operational and planning issues that cannot be solved with a tweet.

There are people who are having to decide whether to get the roads and rail prepared first or get the ports open first. Ports can’t operate without roads and rail. But roads and rail are useless without ports. There is no right answer.

The best I can suggest is to educate yourself. And you can actually do it for free online.

If nothing else, taking these courses can help you understand how to operate within the framework set up.

And – in the event you are faced with a disaster – you can understand how to operate within the framework

One thought on “On Federal Response to Puerto Rico: Armchair Quarterbacking in a Vacuum of Knowledge

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