Monday, October 16, 2017

[Editorial] When the Going Gets Tough… The Stoic Turn Pro

By on September 14, 2017

Just past 11 in the morning on the day prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irma to longitudes and latitudes near Puerto Rico, an advisory caused meteorologists to do double takes of readings—the Category 5 hurricane had strengthened to sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (mph) in the eye wall with gusts of 225 mph and barometric pressure of 916 millibars. Those horrifying vital stats made Irma the most powerful hurricane on record to have originated in the Atlantic.

The possibility of a direct hit held Puerto Rico on high alert because the wind beast flaunted its might when it flattened the French and Dutch island of St. Martin and the island of Barbuda as it continued to jog west before its eventual slight turn northwest. Despite the reference of that massive devastation occurring too close for comfort as it tracked to Latitude 19.1 North and Longitude 66.1 West at its closest point north of San Juan—Gov. Ricardo Rosselló kept his cool and orchestrated press conferences with agency heads that kept the people fully informed.

So, too, did the governor take measures days prior to Irma’s brush with Puerto Rico. He ably led the establishment of some 460 shelters with the capacity to house some 50,000 people and he oversaw an effort by law enforcement officers and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials who persuaded residents in coastal areas that they should evacuate to these safe havens.

The evacuation was an effort steeped in hardship as many citizens in low-lying coastal areas were reluctant to move from their homes, either because they were skeptical of the storm’s potential intensity or its imminent threat—call it the “eso no pasa por aquí” (Spanish for “that’s not coming through here”) syndrome.

Thankfully, mother nature gave Puerto Rico a pass—had the eye wall passed nearer to the coast, a devastating storm surge and 185 mph sustained winds would have caused catastrophic damage and the story would have been tragic. All told, the Rosselló administration managed to move some 6,200 residents into shelters. For his work in coordinating state and federal agencies prior to and during Irma’s tropical haunt, the governor has been largely commended by both friend and political foe. This newspaper believes the governor deserves those high marks.

The good grades extend to the employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) who have put forth a herculean effort in reconnecting a power grid that is in a decrepit state with obsolete power generation units, some of which are 44 years old and hinge on principle powerlines—Prepa lost eight of nine major lines—that were corroded, came unhinged and dropped.

When the last waft of wind had blown as Irma cranked toward the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico had 900,000 homes without electricity, a population in the dark that would have been much higher had Irma blown with its full intensity.

As this newspaper was going to press, Prepa’s communications officials informed that more than 77% of the utility’s 1.5 million clients have power. The figure seems inconsistent with the high number of complaints that continue to rise on the utility’s website and reports from field workers who insist repairs are moving at a snail’s pace because the power company has significantly reduced the number of workers in the field and some jobs are being farmed out to independent contractors.

At this writing, there is a contingent from Virginia in Puerto Rico that had been sent before Irma’s arrival as a preventive measure. The Virginia Task Force 2 / FEMA Urban Search & Rescue Team comprising specialists in search and rescue put disaster experts in place to deal with the potential destruction of a catastrophic storm. Thankfully, hurricane protocol was changed post-Katrina. In the times after our lord George W., the playbook now calls for the Southern Command to work in tandem with FEMA and other federal agencies prior to the striking of a catastrophic event. Thus, the designation of Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) as a disaster zone. Why wait for pandemonium? Put the jurisdictions in a position to respond swiftly to disaster.

Other measures in place from the playbook include the deployment of the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, which veered from its course to join the Seventh Fleet near Japan to head for the USVI, where it would deploy its helicopters in transporting patients to Puerto Rico and St. Croix (see related story on page 6).

Disasters, human-made and otherwise, have the tendency to bring people together. Puerto Rico has not been the exception. Rosselló, the Prepa brigades and the people of Puerto Rico showed their true colors—not their political stripes—and our potential for kindness and cooperation in the face of impossible challenges.

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