After Action Review · Complaining · disaster · Empathy · FEMA · honesty · Hurricane · Puerto Rico · Solutions

Puerto Rico and Federal Response: Criticism Based on Ignorance and Absence of Suggestion for Improvement

“Time, money and lives are most wasted when the cause of problems is misdiagnosed.”

Human suffering is a difficult thing to handle.  We use our imaginations and we sympathize with people who have no power, lack of access to clean water, lack of food, etc.  When the power goes out for a few minutes we get angry.  A few hours riles us because of the immense discomfort that it causes to us and our activities of daily living.

Image from ABC News

It’s one reason why I view electrical linemen as the single greatest group of unrecognized heroes in our society. When the power goes out is when shit gets real, and they will go out in storms and the like to try to establish power.  True heroes to me.

Thus, when we see the situation in Puerto Rico it causes our hearts to ache.  When our hearts ache we get outraged and outrage needs an outlet.  Typically, it plays out like any Hollywood movie – there HAS to be a villain.  We have an emotional and primal need to point the finger at somebody.  There is an internal conflict that has to have some face to it.

Hollywood hasn’t conditioned this human thought but it exploits it.  In the movie Apollo 13, Director Ron Howard inserted Fred Haise accusing Jack Swigert of not doing his job correctly.  This never happened on the mission, but Ron Howard needed a cinematic moment to show tension.  It’s a human thing.

Nevertheless, we know it wasn’t Swigert’s fault.  We want to blame something for autism: point to vaccines.  We want to blame something for crime and domestic terror: point to immigrants.

And we want to blame someone for continued suffering in Puerto Rico: point to the US President.

Of course this happens.  It’s easy. It’s convenient.  And it causes a massive problem.  Let’s call this CRPro’s Law #2: “Time, money and lives are most wasted when the cause of problems is misdiagnosed.” For example, consider the amount of resources spent trying to show that vaccines don’t cause autism that could have been spent finding the actual cause or causes.

The same is true for Puerto Rico, and CRPro’s Law #2 is most applicable when politics when blame is mixed with ignorance of the actual roles and responsibilities.

California, Texas and Florida All Have Disasters
One can look at the pretty rough last couple of months that nature has handed to the US.  There was hurricane Harvey in Texas that brought massive flooding, hurricane Irma that swept up Florida and wreaked havoc, and most recently the wildfires of California that have devastated local communities.  Note that Montana and Oregon were also hit very heavily by fires this summer, but those didn’t cause the same public health and safety damages as the others mentioned.

When one looks at those disasters, one can clearly see that those states were prepared to implement the National Reference Framework and National Incident Management System guidelines.  There is indeed a system set up and those states have gone right by the playbook.

Puerto Rico did not, and this is for and understandable reason that is explained below: Puerto Rico admitted six months ago that it was “unable to provide its citizens effective services.” This would go on to kill people.

Historical Precedent Unheeded
In order for people to get really pissed off about regular events, people must have short memories.  Look back to Hurricane Georges, a major hurricane that hit Puerto Rico in around 1998 (I remember because I had friends from the Army who were officers in PR – we were classmates. They were professionals, they were Patriots and those guys could party). After the storm, it took almost 6 months to restore just 50% power.  As mindblowing as it sound, Georges caused more electrical system and road damage than Maria.

What was learned? Apparently not much. The same vulnerabilities were there, same shoddy infrastructure.  Rather than hardening the infrastructure or preparing for the inevitable “when, not if” the issue was ignored.

The feds have actual goals set for things like power availability at present.  Puerto Rico is presently operating at around 17% of power restored. The goal set is for 25% of power to be restored by the end of October. While that sounds terrible, those on the ground there understand that a huge problem is clearing and removing 6.5 million cubic yards of tree debris that weighed down power lines. Just getting the matter off of the powerlines is a herculean task.  The workers need roads and fuel to get there to even clear and remove this debris.

But what of the federal government not distributing the food, water and fuel to localities?

The NRF and NIMS system stripped down
Here is a brief synopsis of how the system is designed:
(1) Feds bring in water and ask the governor where to put it
(2) Governor has reports from municipalities and directs how much water to be sent to Regional Supply Activities.
(3) From there, the locality mayors have their personnel come and get the water. (Actually, it works that way for food, fuel, water, etc. Classes I-IV.) The mayors tell the RSAs what else they need
(4) RSA tells the governor
(5) Governor tells FEMA where to send supplies
(6) Repeat

This is the system. Along with FEMA, the Red Cross and dozens of other NGOs are providing additional services. However, this is most certainly NOT what is going on everywhere in Puerto Rico.  The Feds are doing much more than they are supposed to do because Puerto Rico itself is incapable of it.

There is a Lot Going On that You Don’t Hear About – Because it’s Boring and Not Newsworthy
If it bleeds it leads.  We see stories of suffering. We see stories of people trekking for miles for fresh water because the feds won’t deliver water to communities.  People feel the feds should do more.  This is the problem – the Feds are being criticized for not being effective enough at not doing someone else’s job.

Here’s a bit of what is going on.  In Puerto Rico there is now the Army Corps of Engineers, who two weeks ago was commanded to partner up with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to make emergency repairs to the power grid. From my sources it’s the Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District is the project lead.  Thus far in PR the Corps of Engineers has installed more portable generators in PR than in Texas and Florida COMBINED. This is something that the press doesn’t report.

This is something that is neither talked about nor advertised.  There seems to be, in a sense, a desire for this sort of information to NOT get through. And while I see so many complaints about a lackluster Federal Response, as a trained logistician I see the Federal Response has been goddamned heroic. Those people on the ground are doing everything they can.

Where does the dispute come into this?  People have left their homes and families and have gone to a disaster area to help.  They are hearing reports about how little they are doing while maintaining superhuman levels of accomplishment.  There is also no better way to decrease worker effectiveness than to disregard their accomplishments.

Puerto Rico’s Pre-Existing Issues are Crucial: “Unable to Provide its Citizens Effective Services”
19 years ago was not a lesson learned and it pisses me off. The infrastructure? Just kinda rigged back to a workable condition. Roads, power lines, etc. PREPA was already in bankruptcy and $9 billion in debt. And PREPA was not alone in its fiscal mess because…

Puerto Rico was in the news a LOT the last year for its pending bankruptcy, which it filed 6 months ago. $125 billion in debt ($75 billion in debts and $50 billion in pension liabilities). According to the bankruptcy filing (technically not “bankruptcy” but rather a new form of debt reorganization under a law that Congress passed last year – another complicated story of cronyism that didn’t pay off for Wall Street seeking crony bailouts), “Puerto Rico is unable to provide its citizens effective services.” This summer, 6/10 Puerto Ricans were unemployed or not interested in working – the social system set up to reward it.

Puerto Rico set up a culture of dependency.  Infrastructure? Nope. Power grid (which was so antiquated it ran off of diesel)? Nope. Water and sewage and the like? Nope. Didn’t spend on that because this doesn’t get votes. Social Programs and lavish government employee pensions were the preferred vote getters.

When these are added together, Puerto Rico took steps to make itself INCAPABLE of managing this event.  In a fundamental sense, PR screwed its citizens, itself, and screwed over creditors. PR six months ago was unable to provide its citizens with effective services by it own admission.

Which means that the government of PR, and its municipalities, threw in the damned towel and has left what was designed to be the federal government in a support role into the Feds taking a lead role – which it was not designed or trained to do.

Some mayor is out there openly complaining that the Feds aren’t doing her job.  And thanks to politics, she is being lauded as heroic.  Meanwhile, about 80 other local and state leaders are working their asses off, toiling in obscurity to try to help when they haven’t the resources.

My Criticisms of the Feds are that The Feds Were Too Concerned About Image
Should the feds have seen the Charlie Foxtrot coming? Probably. Should the Feds have realized a week before the storm hit, “Puerto Rico is a soup sandwich and it’s gonna be worse and we better start getting shit together?” Yes.

That’s how far I will go to criticize the federal response – being too warm-hearted. While it would have no doubt causes some tonal problems, the President should have gone onto twitter on the Ides of September and said, “Puerto Rico’s governments cannot be trusted to withstand this. Considering the current government situation, the People of Puerto Rico will die without federal assistance. I am mobilizing assets to immediately move into Puerto Rico and save some lives.”

Give Suggestions for Improvement Instead of General Whining
As much as there is criticism of federal response, I don’t see anyone giving specifics about what should. “We should be doing more” is the general gist.

Yet, I always had another rule when dealing with subordinates: never ever complain without proposing a solution.  The reason for this role was manifold: (1) it demonstrated to me that the subordinate had put thought into the problem and was not just whining; (2) the subordinate knew things I did not and operated in a different realm; and (3) it told the subordinate that I not only trust their thoughts and ideas but I NEED them to tell me how to do things better.

General griping that “the President isn’t doing enough” or “the feds need to do more” is lazy griping. Actually making suggestions requires that a person put forth the work to know the situation and mission and consider costs and benefits.  I will heed ANYBODY who has given consideration to issues.

After Action Reviews Require Thick Skins

Further disclosure is that I spend a few years working for Uncle Sam as an Observer/Controller.  In doing so, I was tasked with training and assessing other units and leaders in conducting training.  The most crucial event of any event in an exercise was the After Action Review.  AARs are designed to obtain feedback from all participants in a discussion so that leaders can understand what went wrong and what went right in order to understand tasks to sustain and tasks to improve.

In order for an AAR to be effective, the first rule I announced when conducting them was “No thin skins.” Every person must be absolutely free to provide their thoughts, feelings and insights.  The AAR does not care about rank. The AAR does not grade success or failure but it identifies tasks to sustain and tasks to improve.

Political Correctness has zero role.  While I am not personally involved in the events in Puerto Rico, I’ve got some sources who are letting me know what is going on and it’s the difference between what is on the news and what isn’t.

One thing I absolutely think is that Hawaii better be paying attention to Puerto Rico. Very many of the same issues affecting an island in a big Atlantic affect an island chain in an even bigger Pacific.  I think that Governor David Ige, if he hasn’t already, should assign a few people to head to Puerto Rico, get themselves involved in the Federal Response, and closely observe the After Action Review process.



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