Commentary: For hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, an insider’s guide to disaster management

It seems there’s a template that critics follow for Donald Trump versus the Hurricanes: they say he won’t do enough, that it isn’t being done fast enough, that everything will collapse (ready Katrina headlines) and then the draining, heroic reality of the response takes hold. With post-Maria Puerto Rico the latest example of that trope, it’s time for a better understanding of how disaster management works.

Soldiers of Puerto Rico's national guard distribute relief supplies in San Juan after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

A disaster destroys in hours infrastructure that took decades to build. Millions of people lose the services that separate a middle-class suburb from an impoverished slum – clean water, sewers, power, hospitals, roads. And Maria was the strongest storm to strike the area in 80 years.

Meanwhile, the media tends to focus on drama and controversy. They often overplay the story via anecdotal reporting (“Here’s Mrs. Hernandez without electricity,” says the reporter [pause], “with no help in sight”) and underplay the work being done, especially at the beginning of the response where progress is hard to see. First responders on laptops methodically solving supply problems are not very mediagenic, after all.


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At the moment of any disaster, needs are at 100 percent while the response is at a zero point. The response starts in deficit. It always looks grim, especially to participants and outside observers unfamiliar with the process. They want what is a marathon to play out like a sprint.

In dealing with a major disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military follow a standard playbook. I know, I worked with both on and off for two decades while with the State Department. I trained with them, and was on the ground for relief efforts after the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake (more than 6,000 dead) and 2004 Asian tsunami (280,000 dead.) I worked the Washington DC-end of many other disasters. I read after-action reporting from 20-30 other such events.

The critical initial step is a needs assessment, from which everything else flows. Everyone wants to jump in and do something, but responders need time to visit sites, confer with local officials, and determine what is needed and where the needs are greatest. It is a slow process in a chaotic environment, delayed by weather, roads, and communications. From the outside it can look like nothing is being done; Mrs. Hernandez still doesn’t have electricity even as helicopters are flying around, apparently ignoring her!

The needs assessment gets the right help to the right places in order of priority. As an example, I was part of a liaison team with the American Navy at Phuket, Thailand following the Asian tsunami of 2005. Without any local input, the U.S. first helicopters brought in huge fresh water bladders. It turned out most of the water was unneeded; the city had warehouses full of the bottled version.

It took a day for us to track down, but the most urgent need the Navy could address was a buildup of medical waste at local hospitals. Waste pre-disaster was trucked out daily; the tsunami wrecked the roads, and so boxes of soiled bandages and infected sharps accumulated. When American resources turned to help dispose of that, hospitals were able to run at peak capacity. Lives were saved. The water bladders lay abandoned in parking lots around town.

Other decisions that can flow from a needs assessment might include restoring power to one school to shelter 50 families before fixing 50 individual homes. It can mean blocking people from calling internationally so limited cell capacity can be directed to local emergency calls. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, set as a priority reopening dialysis centers across Puerto Rico. Somebody else didn’t get helped first to make that possible.

At the early-to-intermediate stages of a disaster response people in less affected areas will wait in long lines for supplies. It looks bad on TV, but can actually mean the system is working, as help was directed to a higher priority. It takes good reporting to know if that’s the case. Instead, progress is often too quickly defined as “make everything back to the way it was before the storm.”

The military plays a key role in disaster response. The problem is Americans are conditioned to believe there are unlimited resources of all types, instantly movable across notable distances.

Military units tend to have war fighting as their primary job, and most are somewhere doing that, or training to do that. Shifting to a disaster mission can happen quickly but not instantly. It’s also essential to gather people with the right skills – electrical engineers, teams that desalinate sea water for drinking, and sewage crews (3.4 million people’s waste festering with fecal-borne disease is a dreaded secondary killer in this disaster.)

Much mockery has been directed at Trump’s statement about Puerto Rico being an island, surrounded by “big water.” His phrasing was callous, but the fact Puerto Rico is an island is significant. Unlike Texas or Florida, no one can self-evacuate, by car or even on foot. Same for incoming aid. Everything must travel by plane, or, more likely, ship.

Puerto Ricans now need some two million gallons of fresh water a day. A gallon weighs about eight pounds, so that’s 16 million pounds of water. A C-130 cargo plane can carry some 42,000 pounds. So that’s 380 flights a day, every day, just for water. There are bigger aircraft, but the bottom line is always the same: you simply have to move the epic quantities required to respond to an epic island disaster by ship to a port, then inland by truck.

That last step, moving supplies from a port (or airport) to those who need them is known as the “last mile” problem. It haunts every disaster response.

Success with the last mile depends on local infrastructure. If it was neglected before the disaster, it will never be better (and often worse) during the disaster response. Next comes the need for trucks, fuel for those trucks, drivers, security, and personnel and equipment to offload the ships and load the vehicles. If you’re missing one link in the chain, the aid does not move.

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These are tough realities, not excuses for why more hasn’t been done for desperate people. It can be a complex, methodical process, addressing a single problem (get water to that village) as a cascading string of nested problems. While the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s remark that Puerto Rico relief is the “most logistically challenging event” the United States has ever faced seems exaggerated, it does underscore the size of the job at hand.

So don’t be distracted by the apocalyptic tweets between Trump and his critics; they exist independent of the ground truth. Because while no response is ever fast and robust enough, the systemic breakdowns that hit New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have largely been fixed, well-before Trump even took office.

Responses are always imperfect; lack of drinking water remains a critical issue. The loss of life in Puerto Rico is sure to rise from 16, as rescuers reach more remote areas. For Harvey, the death toll was at least 70, Irma 72. Katrina saw 1,836 fatalities with over 700 people still missing.

But a tipping point will take place, where adequate services are restored and people will start to receive the help they need. Problems will reduce from regions without power to villages without power to an isolated home without power. The principles of disaster management should not be lost in the politics surrounding events in Puerto Rico. Everything else right now seems to be just Twitter wars.

About the Author

Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of State. @WeMeantWell

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.