October 8, 2017

State, City Employees Playing Vital Role in Puerto Rico Recovery Work

Hundreds Deployed to Help Restore Normalcy

BIG JOB, FAST FRIENDS: While some of New York City’s ‘Maria’ task force helped San Juan’s municipal government coordinate its local response, others helped Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth government team up with FEMA to meet the needs of the island’s 78 municipalities. Photo: New York City Office of Emergency Management

Several hundred first-responders and emergency-management personnel from both the city and New York State have been on the ground in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit and are playing pivotal roles in the ravaged island’s recovery.

In addition to a couple of hundred members of the National Guard, Governor Cuomo dispatched 50 State Troopers and Mayor de Blasio sent 150 first-responders and experienced Office of Emergency Management staffers. Officials believe that the New York contingent is one of the largest of the 24 states that are engaged in a recovery effort that is expected to take at least several months.

‘A Terrible Situation’

The Governor told reporters that even weeks after the category 5 storm hit, he was hearing from state employees that both the power and telecommunications service were in rough shape but that progress had been made on transportation, thanks to the clearing of storm debris from the island’s roads. But he said while “the roads are clear, it is still a terrible, terrible situation.”

He said he was glad that President Trump eventually made his way to the struggling island, but his delay meant that he had missed the opportunity to have a bigger impact. “Had he gone earlier, I think you would have seen less negativity, because it is a very powerful statement, showing up,” he said. “Because when you go through a hurricane, an earthquake, a disaster, a situation like this, you are dealing with human beings, you’re dealing with emotions. They are frightened. They are anxious. They don’t know what is going to happen and they feel alone and they feel isolated. To the extent that a person in power can help, shows up—that is a tremendous comfort by just being there and just giving a hug and saying ‘we are here, don’t worry. It is going to work out.’”

He said that after his tenure as U.S. Housing Secretary under President Clinton and during his seven years as Governor, he had become an ardent believer in pre-deployment for responses to hurricane-like events and that he believed it was the lack of pre-deployment for Maria that hobbled the Federal Emergency Management Agency response. “Rule number one in emergencies and disasters is the day after the storm is too late,” the Governor said. “You can’t play catch-up. You can’t get there. You can’t transport that fast.”

‘This Wasn’t Texas’

Mr. Cuomo faulted the Federal agency for not having a hands-on understanding of how Puerto Rico differed from the states it usually assists. “I think FEMA misunderstood, or miscalculated, what they were dealing with...Puerto Rico was not Texas. It was not Florida. Texas and Florida have sophisticated infrastructure, depth of government personnel, neighboring states that send in utility trucks. Puerto Rico, you are an island. You are all alone. The government is basically financially insolvent. The power was antiquated to begin with. The communications system was fragile. FEMA was not there to play a supporting role, which is what they normally do…They were the primary force that was going to have to provide protection.”

Police Commissioner James O’Neill told reporters he gets regular updates throughout the day from NYPD personnel on the scene and that the rugged terrain in parts of the island meant that some villages still were having trouble getting the basics long after the storm had subsided. “I get probably at least four or five times a day, get an update from Chief Giordano in charge of Emergency Services,” he said. “Just yesterday, they went out to a village that was cut off due to an overflowing stream and assembled a cable system, a rubber raft, and got not just food and water up to them, but had to get prescription medicine over to them. And this is the work they have been engaged in, for quite a long time now. Not just in Puerto Rico; they went down to Florida. They went to Houston.”

Praises NYPD Volunteers

Mr. O’Neill said the back-to-back disaster deployments were “a great sacrifice,” yet within the NYPD, more and more people were stepping forward to volunteer to go. “Some of these men and women have not seen their families for quite a long time. We also have people from the Hispanic Association and the Hispanic Society that went down with OEM with Commissioner Esposito’s people, and they are down in San Juan now. And there are more and more people looking to go, but we just have to make sure that they are properly supported down there.”

In a phone interview from San Juan, Jonathan Jenkins, Assistant Commissioner for Logistics for NYC’s OEM, said that the TV images don’t do justice to the scale of the destruction that the island experienced under the massive rainfall and 185-mile-per-hour winds. “No matter what you see on TV, unless you are here, you just can’t grasp the totality of the damage” and “the craziness of the things you’ll see like a motorcycle up in a tree,” he said. “With Sandy, some people lost their homes and some people were without power, but here everybody was affected.”

The OEM contingent is divided into three teams that are working two-week rotations. “Team One has been living on cots in a gym and been staying with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz at the Community Center at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. They set up her Emergency Operations Center,” Mr. Jenkins said. His team was assigned to work with the Commonwealth government to coordinate both the island’s government and FEMA’s response to Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities. The third team was setting up the distribution channels for aid and was set to relieve Team One, which returned to New York last week.

Conditions and the status of the recovery vary widely depending on the location. “The western interior is very rural, and you have bridges out in these places,” Mr. Jenkins said. “You have mountainous places, others that were hit by mudslides and coastal places devastated by the storm surge.” Overcoming the challenge of the remoteness of much of the island is compounded, the OEM veteran said, by poor or nonexistent cell and Wifi service. When asked what his biggest takeaway from his deployment was, he said, “from a management perspective, with something like this, you can’t think out of the box too much.”

Schools’ Dual Purpose

In San Juan, close to two dozen public schools had opened back up and were now in session last week. Mr. Jenkins said that the public schools were also doubling as community kitchens to feed the general public.

Mayor de Blasio, who was wearing a Puerto Rican flag lapel pin at last week’s press conference, told reporters the city “put a special focus on the city of San Juan, which is a sister-city to New York, if there ever was one.” He praised Mayor Yulin-Cruz as “a hands-on leader solving very, very difficult problems.”

“So, our folks down there have done an amazing job. They have been selfless; they have sacrificed to go down there, but they did it willingly,” he said, adding that because of the severity of the destruction, there would have to be a long-term city commitment to the island. “All of that will have to deepen because of this crisis—now that we are seeing the full images. Puerto Rico is not going to be fully up and on its feet for several years, from what I can see. And so we have a special obligation given this city is almost one-tenth Puer­to Rican and the intense ties we have to Puerto Rico, we have a special obligation to be there for them for the long haul.”