Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What I learned in Puerto Rico

There’s an old saying in emergency management, “There are no new lessons learned in emergency management, just new people learning the same old lessons.” Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was the 21st hurricane response in which I had participated, the first being Hurricane Opal striking Florida in 1995.

A much younger Michael Whitehead at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee during the Hurricane Opal response in 1995.
I traveled to Puerto Rico as a part of a Red Cross contingent mixed in on a charter flight with a Disaster Medical Assistance Team from Arizona. We landed at a darkened San Juan Airport at 2 AM on September 23, a few days after the storm struck the island. I was the second Red Cross person to arrive at the federal and state operations center in the San Juan Convention Center.


September 22, 2017: Red Cross volunteers and staff in Atlanta boarding a FEMA chartered flight for San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Many people asked me what I learned as a result of my participation in the initial response. On the spur of the moment I made a quick list of takeaways from my time in Puerto Rico. And I'm not speaking here about the Red Cross response in Puerto Rico, but about the overall response by the federal, state, local, and nongovernmental organizations that were involved.

This response was so unique and different from the others that I learned some new lessons while re-learning some of the old ones:
  •        There was no power, no communications, no water and no sewage almost anywhere on the Island when I arrived. In a situation where resources are in such short supply and distribution is a challenge the mass care Priority #1 is to resource the shelters. The shelters then become a Point of Distribution and the local community comes to that location to get food and water.
  •          “We were stuck on Day 2 of the response.” By days 3-4 in most responses power starts coming back on and the influx of outside resources catches up with demand. In PR we couldn’t get past Day 2 – the power didn’t come on and the terrible logistics of an island response kept FEMA from getting enough food and water on the island. In fact, in much of PR we are still in Day 2 of the response.
  •          The lack of communication was unprecedented in my experience. We had difficulty emailing or even making a cell call in the San Juan Convention Center where the Joint Field Office was established. At times, we couldn’t email or call someone on another floor or even across the room! We took pictures of each other’s pieces of paper, or their computer screen or their iPhone to capture the information that we needed.
A picture that I took of a piece of paper in order to capture the addresses because our email was limited.
  •          Large earthquakes like the New Madrid and San Andreas will create islands like PR, filled with millions of people unable to get power, communication, food or water. And with the bridges down, they will be unable to leave. Ironically, the many lessons learned from this response will apply to large earthquake responses.
  •          With populations this large (there are over 3.5 million people on the Island), we cannot bring enough shelf stable meals and bottled water on the island fast enough to meet demand, much less get it distributed in an equitable manner. We needed water purification tablets, straws and large Units capable of producing water in bulk, which is what they started bringing on the Island. Then they brought in containers for the populace to carry the water. And propane cooking stoves so that they can distribute food boxes with food that can be cooked.
  •          And finally, more of the responders got traumatized than in other disasters. I was.

Traumatized? Me? Yes.

I've traveled and been and seen things like this before. I was in a war zone for a year. I arrived in southern Mississippi 3 days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into Bay St. Louis and Waveland and Biloxi and all the other towns that were devastated. I spent 2 weeks in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. I've seen acres of carbonized homes with solitary chimneys left standing in mournful protest after wildfires.

But Puerto Rico was different.

I didn’t travel about the Island. Like during Katrina, I was working long hours so I missed all the terrible television images that many of you saw. For 3 weeks, I sat at a table that was one of many identical tables on the 3rd floor of the Convention Center. In the first weeks that I was there a parade of people with problems and questions for the Red Cross came to see me and my partner. Sometimes they were lining up to see us. Some of these problems and questions we were able to resolve. For most of the problems and questions we had no ready solutions nor answers.

The Joint Field Office on the 3rd floor of the San Juan Convention Center where I worked for 3 weeks responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
What follows is a brief but representative collection of the information that came to me by message, phone or in-person:
  • Search and Rescue reported finding dead bodies and live people in the same house.
  • A request for assistance from a nursing home, saying that they had no food or water for 2 days.
  • The Puerto Rican Red Cross volunteer who burst into tears mid-sentence as she was talking to me and sobbed, “I have been trying to bring food and water to my family, but I can’t.”
  • The man from Dominica who saw my Red Cross hat and stopped me as I left the Convention Center. He said that he had been living at the airport for 3 weeks trying to get home. I could see the desperation in his eyes.
  • A family of tourists in a hotel who needed food for their children because they had run out of cash and no store could take a credit card.
  • A family who needed a generator because their child would not survive without electricity.
  • Hospitals that couldn’t get diesel for their generators because the tanker drivers were afraid of being hijacked.
  • A message: “I have not heard from my elderly parents for a week. Can you tell me if they are okay?”
  • A message: “My father lives alone and needs insulin. Can you help me get him a resupply?”
  • An overheard conversation:
“These two elderly women live near my house. How can they get some food and water?”
“They need to go to the point of distribution for the municipality.”
“That’s a 30-minute walk from their house and we live on top of a hill.”
“You need to talk to the Mayor of the municipality.”
“We never know when the distribution site will be open. And by the time we get there everything is gone.”
“You need to talk to the Mayor of the municipality.”
“Isn’t there any other way to help these people?”
“This is the system that the Puerto Rican government has established. Go talk to the Mayor.”

We had lots of electronic communications devices but very little communications.
  • There was the young guy in the nice, blue U.S. Public Health Service uniform: 
He was on the Disaster Mortuary Team. “Red Cross workers in the field discovered some dead bodies,” he said. He wanted to make sure that if we discovered any more that we recorded the precise location and passed the information on to him. “We need to pick up the bodies,” he explained, almost apologetic. “It’s our job.”

There were more stories. Many more. I can’t remember them all, but I can’t seem to forget enough. The daily onslaught of messages from desperate people who I knew would die or suffer greatly if we could not help them, and we could not help all of them, took an emotional toll. I didn't need to travel to the cities or the shelters to know what was going on. I had enough disaster experience to know what the conditions were like on the island based on the reports I was seeing.

I think that I was traumatized by the fact that I traveled to the Island to help but I found out when I got there that I was unable to help everyone. In the other disasters I felt like we were behind but we were catching up and eventually we would get to everyone. In Puerto Rico, standing on the 3rd floor of the San Juan Convention Center, I didn't feel that way. I felt like I was in an alternate disaster universe, or in the disaster version of Groundhog Day, where we performed the same tasks with the same unsatisfying results.

I was deeply saddened by this knowledge, and still am to this day. I did the best I could. In fact, I think that I did one of the best jobs that I've ever done in any disaster. And I'm so very sorry that it wasn't enough.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Reflections" on student life from 1981

I was reminded of when I was a columnist for the Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper, during my long ago graduate student days in 1981. One of my columns, which I have excerpted below, will give you younger folks some perspective on the great issues of the day that we have discussed, are discussing and will discuss.

Mike Whitehead in 1981  with his graduate student "look"

Excerpt from my "Reflections" column in the Independent Florida Alligator in 1981:

UF has changed from 1975, when I left on a six year sabbatical, and last August, when I returned to enter the wasteland of higher education. The debate over Vietnam has been replaced by the debate over El Salvador. But, whereas the argument over El Salvador has just recently reached the stage where rhetoric overwhelms all fact, by 1971 the debate over Vietnam had passed that stage by about three years. Of course, like everyone else, we had our riots. In spring of 1972, Nixon decided to coax the enemy to the bargaining table by mining the harbors of Hanoi and Haiphong and bombing the hell out of whatever was left of North Vietnam. The UF campus, which had slumbered peacefully through the Tet offensive and the invasion of Cambodia, suddenly sprang into life. The local anti-war leadership, defeated and dejected after beating a dead horse for six years, was overjoyed that they could finally break out their microphones and chant their slogans to a crowd of more than 10 people.

The brave students seized 13th street in front of Tigert Hall and waiting gamely for the enemy to arrive, which they shortly did. A weak attack by a fire truck spraying water and then a tear gas grenade was easily repulsed by the students (they threw the grenade on top of the fire truck). The enemy retreated, the students cheered, and then settled down to a game of Frisbee. Meanwhile dark clouds were gathering as, unbeknownst to our heroes, every red-neck sheriff and policeman for five counties was called to Gainesville for the counterattack, which took place just after dark.

Guerrilla war ensued when the students realized that the policemen were prevented from entering the campus. The students began to launch forays into enemy lines as the policemen, like Marines on a firebase, waited doggedly for the next assault. The students would drag a bench onto University Avenue in front of Murphree Hall, wait for a squad car to respond, and then pelt the officers with rocks when they arrived. Reinforcements were called, tear gas was fired, and the students would retreat into Murphree Hall until the next round. All this came to an abrupt halt when a tear gas grenade (accidentally?) landed in a first floor stairwell and smoked everyone out.

I watched all these proceedings, quite safely, from the roof of what is now Goering's Book Center. This not only looked like the movies, it bore a remarkable resemblance to the evening news of the last few years. So this is college life, I thought.

So this is college life. Unfortunately for these students, the war ended in a year and they had to return to more mundane things like studying. Today's freshman has no such mission or sense of purpose to guide his life. Oh, he has the environmental movement and the anti-nukes, and El Salvador is beginning to have possibilities, but nothing to offer him full commitment. Maybe Reagan will send the Marines into El Salvador. Wouldn't that be great? Then the old megaphones could be dusted off and the never ending battle for truth, compassion and justice could be continued against the Gainesville police, just like in the days of old. Who wants to study anyway?

Monday, May 29, 2017

My memories on Memorial Day


I first met Bob Zangas in Kuwait at the start of the war. He was a Marine Corp Lieutenant Colonel, a Reservist, and part of the civil affairs contingent for the First Marine Division. He and I were waiting in Kuwait while the invading army sliced through the hapless Iraqi Army on the way to Baghdad. We worked on a project together and I got to know him. After I moved to Camp Babylon Bob moved to the provincial capital of Al Kut. I was able to see him a few more times before he rotated home in September 2003 with the rest of the Marines.

I first met Fern Holland at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) South Central Office at the Hotel Babylon in Hilla in the fall of 2003. Fern, a lawyer from Oklahoma, was assigned to the office to promote women's rights in the south central region of Iraq. Fern came across to me as a very attractive, very intense young woman. We were going in different directions during the day so I rarely spoke more than a few words to her, and that was mostly in passing, in places like the dining facility. Such a woman, assigned to perform such a mission, caused some eye rolling among some of the men at the Office. But, since the promotion of women's rights in Iraq was a priority for Ambassador Bremer and the CPA, such editorial comments were limited.

Salwa Oumashi was an Iraqi translator who worked for Fern. According to a 
New York Times article on these two women, Salwa had lived in the United States. One evening, during a social function on the third floor of the Hotel Babylon, I was able to have a nice, long discussion with Salwa. I took away the impression that she was very committed to her job.

In December 2003 I was standing in the CPA compound when I saw Bob Zangas, dressed in civilian clothes. After Bob completed his initial tour and the Marine Corp Reserve returned him to civilian life, Bob volunteered to return to Iraq as a civilian employee of the CPA. He was assigned to our South Central Office with the task of building the capacity of the Iraqi media. Although I could not imagine volunteering to return to Iraq the act seemed to go along with the boundless enthusiasm Bob had for his new job and the unlimited optimism he had for the future of the Iraqi people.

The CPA South Central compound where I worked from October 2003 to February 2004 was comprised of primarily civilian employees of CPA or Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), the contractor responsible for providing our logistical support. Most of the cooks and servers in our dining facility were Pakistanis who lived right there in the compound. The men who protected our perimeter and guarded us while we slept were contracted Nepalese, former Gurkhas in the British Army.

Other than a small contingent of Military Police, my Team of five civil affairs soldiers were the only other soldiers on the compound. This became important because we were armed, and could provide our own protection, and we traveled frequently to the five provincial capitals in our area. KBR would often check our schedule and ask if we would escort truckloads of supplies to one of the outlying CPA offices. I didn't want my job to be escorting supply convoys, but I saw no reason that we couldn't occasionally lend a hand.

So it was that one day in January 2004 Bob Zangas came to me and asked if he could accompany us to Ad Diwaniyah and would we stop by a dairy in the area? The dairy was a beneficiary of a CPA project, and Bob wanted do a media story on the project. I thought the task supported the war effort and I agreed to help. In February 2004 Fern asked if she and Salwa could ride 
.along with me on a trip to check on the progress of the construction at the Karbala Women's Rights Center. Later that month Ambassador Bremer came to Karbala to the inauguration of this center.

On February 28, 2004 I left CPA South Central to return to Kuwait and eventually an airplane ride home. With our departure Fern, Salwa and Bob were forced to decide whether they could do their jobs inside the compound or be forced to travel outside, unprotected. I had already observed by their actions that Fern and Bob were prepared to take more risks than I was. Any risks that I took, of course, subjected my soldiers to the same risk. Bob was responsible only to himself. Where ever Fern went she was accompanied by Salwa. I was not privy to any conversations that these women had about the risks that they were taking.

Some could argue that they were braver than I was, or more foolish. Others would say that both sides of the argument are correct. The net result was that on March 9, 2004, ten days after I left Iraq, while returning from a visit to the Karabala Women's Rights Center, Fern Holland, Salwa Oumashi and Robert Zangas were ambushed and killed in their vehicle by a hail of AK - 47 bullets.

February 2004. The Women's Rights Center in Karbala. I am showing the ladies a picture of my family. Fern Holland, far right and Salwa Oumashi, second from right, pointing to the picture, were killed in Iraq in March 2004.

In a commentary in last week's Wall Street Journal  entitled "They also serve who contract out," Peter J. Woolley said that an estimated 3,200 individuals, most of who were American nationals, have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan since these wars began. I know that Memorial Day is to honor fallen American soldiers, but whenever I think of someone who was killed in Iraq Fern, Salwa and Bob come to mind. They and their families sacrificed for this war. 
January 2004. I am translating the Spanish spoken by the Iraqi policeman to my right into English for Bob Zangas, seated to my left. Bob was killed in Iraq in March 2004.



Not a Memorial Day has gone by that I don't think of them.