Gov. Vázquez announces hurricane season readiness measures
SAN JUAN – Along with the heads of Puerto Rico emergency response agencies, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced presented Friday the plans and contingency measures ahead of the hurricane season, which begins June 1 and runs until Nov. 30.
“This hurricane season is unique and atypical, and requires taking additional steps to ensure the safety of our people, as we continue our efforts to prevent the spread…of COVID-19,” the governor said.
Vázquez said that the Emergency Management and Disaster Administration Bureau (NMEAD by its Spanish initials) is in constant communication with the municipalities to coordinate the preparation for operations before, during and after an emergency or disaster, according to a news release issued by her office, La Fortaleza, which adds that schools, community centers, closed courts and stadiums that can be used as shelters have been inspected structurally, with COVID-19 safety measures taken into consideration.
Specifically, the Housing Department is revising shelter guidelines and, in coordination with the Red Cross, training staff on disaster evacuee management amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Due to the distancing recommendations, the quota of people per shelter was reduced by half due to the space required, she said.
There are 264 certified shelters with a capacity for 35,284 people, taking into account social distancing. Following Hurricane Maria, 15,000 people had to seek shelter. Certified shelters include schools determined by the Department of Education to be fit for use, as well as other community spaces, such as the aforementioned.
The governor said the schools on the island’s southern region will be inspected by the engineers to determine their structural integrity following the series of earthquakes that have struck the area.
“The Department of Education, the Department of Housing and the offices of the Municipal Emergency Management Bureau continue with the inspection of schools that can be used as shelters,” the release reads.
Vázquez said the Department of the Family, along with the Department of Education and other organizations, will be responsible for activating their own protocols for their food distribution programs.
“The Family Department will be responsible for ensuring that all licensed centers for the elderly, temporary homes for minors and establishments for people with disabilities are in optimal condition. In addition, through the Administration for the Sustenance of Minors (ASUME), an information center, receipt and distribution of donations and food will be set up if necessary, in coordination with the Office of Emergency Management of the Department of the Family, and the information, receipt and distribution centers for donations and food will be run,” the release says.
For its part the Health Department “has incorporated into its processes the considerations related to the handling of meteorological threats, combined with COVID-19, and the strategies it has developed include recommendations and guidelines on the following: monitoring of vulnerable populations, including populations with access and functional needs; mass care, as are the shelters; continuity of public health surveillance operations; as well as continuous monitoring of health facilities on the island for the continuity of medical services.”
Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico National Guard is conducting emergency management exercises with the municipalities to “strengthen the synchronization of the state, federal and municipal agency efforts…. In the event of a Category I, II or III hurricane, the National Guard has the equipment and personnel necessary to give effective support to the people” and “has already coordinated with national guards from 18 states, such as New Mexico, Ohio, Kentucky, among others, to support equipment and personnel in the event of a Category IV or V hurricane.”
On the U.S. Army website, Maj. Gen. José J. Reyes, adjutant general of Puerto Rico, explained that the Puerto Rico National Guard has begun exercises to prepare for “three hypothetical elements: a Category 3-4 hurricane, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake with a tsunami, and a viral outbreak with epidemic possibilities.”
After hurricanes Irma and Maria struck in 2017, the National Guard divided the island into four operational areas “to maximize and facilitate resources, action and fulfillment of the support required in the different regions,” reads the Puerto Rico National Guard’s piece.
“The objectives we seek to cover are the identification of limitations, the need for equipment and personnel to better the response in the service to Puerto Rico,” Reyes said. “We cannot wait for the situation to occur to react; we have to prepare.
“These exercises seek to reinforce the previously successful areas, recognize the weaknesses in the plans of the various municipalities, and improve the interagency lines of communication,” said Reyes. “We seek to develop and apply executable plans to the particular needs of the municipalities. The important thing is to be prepared, develop good communication, and be able to execute.”
The National Guard “has about 8,500 personnel, 10 helicopters, four cargo vessels, 20 water purification machines with the capacity to purify up to 200,000 gallons per day; and heavy engineering equipment to handle any emergency or natural disaster,” the governor’s office wrote.
As for the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa), the agency is in the process of installing 261 backup generators “that were purchased through auctions and has a preventive maintenance plan for the generators,” La Fortaleza pointed out.
For its part, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) invested $135 million in equipment and materials available in the 27 warehouses around the island and has signed mutual assistance agreements with stateside power companies for electrical service recovery work if necessary.
As for telecommunications, “companies have tripled the inventory of batteries, equipment and materials available for replacement, thus the number of electric generators has also tripled. One of the measures taken is that the government of Puerto Rico signed an agreement with FirstNet to prioritize calls in the midst of the emergency. Today Puerto Rico has an underground fiber-optic that will provide redundancy in telecommunications services throughout Puerto Rico,” the release reads.
“The bureaus that make up the Department of Public Safety (DSP) are prepared to address emergencies during or the hurricane season or not and all the coordination that the NMEAD performs, is carried out in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work on hurricane season-related issues framed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But no matter how better prepared the government is, we must remember that we all have to have our individual and family plan, taking into account the effects of a hurricane in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”