Sunday, December 15, 2019

Puerto Rico 2017 & Maria: Review of "Out of the Whirlwind" by Phillip Palin

A mass care buddy of mine and I ran into each other at FEMA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. this summer. The topic of Puerto Rico and Maria came up.

"That response still bothers me," I told him.

"You need to read Out of the Whirlwind," he replied.

So I did. A lot has been written about the September 2017 rendezvous of Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, and Puerto Rico, a beautiful Caribbean island with some fabulous inhabitants who don’t deserve the  bankrupt government bequeathed to them. Out of the Whirlwind, a novel by Philip Palin, doesn’t try to understand and explain everything that happened during the days, weeks and months after the storm’s impact. Instead, the novel takes a microscope to a part of the response that normally doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Graphical representation of National Hurricane Center forecast for Hurricane Maria,
8 AM, September 20, 2017.

I wrote about my deployment to Puerto Rico with the Red Cross in an earlier post, What I learned in Puerto Rico. I also wrote a Review of Jose Andres Book on Puerto Rico after Maria. For a lot of reasons, I’m still disturbed by what happened during the response to this catastrophe.

I arrived at the San Juan Airport at 1 AM on Saturday, September 23, 2017 on a FEMA chartered flight from Atlanta filled with a Disaster Medical Assistance Team from Arizona and 14 Red Cross volunteers and employees. I spent the next 3 weeks working in the Mass Care Task Force, a part of the State and Federal Headquarters on the 3rd floor of the San Juan Convention Center.

Interestingly enough, the Mass Care Task Force (but fortunately, not my name) were mentioned in both Chef Jose’s and Phillip Palin’s books.

Mr. Palin participated in a fascinating study entitled Supply Chain Resilience and the 2017 Hurricane Season, published by the Center for Naval Analysis’s Institute for Public Research (IPR). Two of the chapters in this study were about Puerto Rico, with one of the two exploring the impact of the storm on the availability of food on the island and the work of the Mass Care Task Force.

The food supply chain on the island was a constant and recurring topic of conversations not only within the Joint Field Office and the Mass Care Task Force at the San Juan Convention Center during my time on the island, but with conversations that we had with individuals back on the mainland. The elephant in the room during the entire time was the 6 million meal per day request by the Governor of Puerto Rico to the federal government. 

The Resource Request Form (RRF) from Puerto Rico to FEMA for  6 million meals/day. Source: Supply Chain Resilience and the 2017 Hurricane Season, CNA
How did they come up with a 6 million meals per day requirement, one wonders? When I first heard about the Resource Request Form (RRF) I thought the same thing. The answer is that the population of the island is 3.4 million and they estimated 2 million people would need to be fed, times 3 meals a day. Voila, 6 million.

The storm hit on Wednesday, September 20 and the RRF was submitted the following Monday, September 25. There were some people in the Convention Center, including me, who thought that the number, for a variety of reasons, was too high. My opinion on the subject was not solicited by the State of Puerto Rico nor FEMA.

Maria was the 25th hurricane that I have worked as a responder and this situation was the direst that I had ever experienced. Essentially the entire island was without power and cell coverage. I could make cell phone calls to the United States but couldn’t call anyone across the room, much less in the building or the other side of town.

In the first week that I was there we were a communications center that couldn't communicate, a coordination center that couldn't coordinate and a response center that couldn't respond. We tried hard but no one thought to bring carrier pigeons or signal flags.

OK, Smart Guys, if you think 6 million meals per day is too high, then what do you think is the right number? It's my job at Red Cross Headquarters to estimate feeding requirements for disasters. The issue was, with the exception of the guy that filled out the RRF, few people had ever tried to make such an estimate. I was willing to try, but this was a catastrophic event, on an island that I had only ever visited once before in my life, in which 40% of the population were on the Puerto Rican version of food stamps.

In areas impacted by high intensity events (like a Category 4 or 5 hurricane) in the continental United States the voluntary agencies, on average, feed 2 meals/day to about 12% of the population for a brief period (3-7 days). That's on average, with considerable variability. My guesstimate (at the time) for Puerto Rico after Maria was 800,000 meals/day for 2 weeks, with a decline to zero for another 8 weeks. And I thought that was a very conservative estimate. But, like I said, no one asked me.

According to Phillip Palin, who I imagine is quoting from documents obtained during his participation in the CNA study, from September 24 to October 12 FEMA shipped 8.4 million shelf stable meals to Puerto Rico and handed them over to the state, provinces and municipalities for distribution. That's about 400,000 meals/day. Considering everything else (bottled water, generators) FEMA had to load in the port of Jacksonville, ship on barges to Puerto Rico, unload at the port of San Juan and then truck to the distribution stages, FEMA logistics did a helluva job. By the end of March 2018, FEMA  shipped over 60 million shelf stable meals, and turned about half over to the state of Puerto Rico.

After my experience with the RRF and the questions about the food supply on the island, reading the CNA study and Out of the Whirlwind made my head explode. Not literally, but figuratively. 

Out of the Whirlwind is Mr. Palin’s effort to translate the academic consultant-speak of the CNA report into a fable about the Puerto Rican people and their remarkable efforts to respond and recover from a catastrophic event. He also wants to teach us about supply chains, how they work, how they respond and how they recover.

Needless to say, the state and federal governments are not the heroes of this fable. The men and women living on the island who did their best to deal with the staggering problems they encountered due to the impact are the heroes.

Mr. Palin has an obvious affection and understanding of the island, its history and inhabitants. He also wants to explain a complex topic (supply chains), using the example of Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico, to an audience unfamiliar with the academic literature. The target audience for this novel is the emergency management community throughout the nation, although I’m not sure they are even aware of that fact.

The narrative of the novel tells the story of the storm’s impact on the food and fuel supply chains on the island, told from the point of view of fictionalized characters. These characters represent key parts of the wholesale, retail and transport parts of the chain. 

The narrative of the novel demonstrates that the six million meals/day requirement was excessive and more importantly, impossible for the Logisticians to meet within the specified timeframe (i.e. for the 3 week period after impact).  Furthermore, there was neither the distribution system nor the demand to meet even a fraction of the proposed supply.

As Palin (and the CNA Study) demonstrates, there was food on the island and a pre-existing commercial system to distribute that food. We knew that this commercial system existed but we thought that it was broken. We were wrong.

Produce available for sale in a San Juan grocery store,
October 7, 2017(Picture taken by the author).

I went into a grocery store near my hotel in San Juan on October 7, two and a half weeks after the storm impacted. The shelves where perishable food normally resided were covered because there was insufficient electricity for refrigeration. There were plenty of empty shelves, but canned food and produce not requiring refrigeration were available.

Non-perishable food items for sale in a San Juan grocery store,
October 7, 2017 (Picture taken by the author).

I spoke to an older woman in the store who had a cart and was shopping. I asked her how she was cooking the food and she said that the electricity on the island was so unreliable that most households had propane stoves as a backup. 

After a sample of one store, I couldn’t draw any broad conclusions about the status of food on the island. There were numerous small villages in the mountains that were inaccessible to ground transportation by commercial or emergency vehicles and were being resupplied by air. Yet, the numbers of people in these isolated villages weren’t in the millions or hundreds of thousands.

According to Palin, the supplies in the store that I visited in San Juan and hundreds of other accessible stores throughout the island were being supplied through the heroic efforts of commercial wholesalers and retailers.  These men and women were struggling to overcome two giant problems. The first was the lack of fuel, an huge issue that I don’t want to get into in this post. The other problem was that the consumer had no access to funds to purchase the food.

When I was staging in Atlanta prior to flying to Puerto Rico, I was instructed to draw $1,000 in cash against the travel debit card that I had been given to cover my expenses for the trip. I was very unaccustomed to and uncomfortable about carrying that much cash on my person, but I did. I needed every bit of the money because Puerto Rico, when I arrived and for several weeks after, was a cash-only place of business. 

You couldn’t use your credit or debit card for purchases. You could only with difficulty extract a limited amount of cash from your account, regardless of the balance. And the 40% of the population using PAN, the island’s food stamp program, had no access to these funds.

In places where the electricity was restored the retail establishments had no access to the cellular network to confirm the electronic transactions. Establishments that were able to restore their antenna searched in vain for a network signal because the network tower was down. An unstated implication in the book is that the federal government’s feeding strategy should have focused on restoring the cellular network instead of bringing in shelf stable meals that the island did not have the full capacity to distribute.

The peak in the influx of shelf-stable meals from FEMA didn’t happen until mid-October. By then, according to Palin, the cell network was sufficiently repaired to allow retail food transactions on most of the island. The bureaucratic momentum of the state/federal disaster feeding strategy was to continue until March of the following year.

They may be some who may want to attribute the situation described here to malfeasance or incompetence. Such accusations could only be justified with 20/20 hindsight. I was there on the ground, trying to utilize some of my considerable disaster feeding experience to identify the problem and suggest solutions. The shortage of cell towers was known. What wasn’t known was the importance of this gap in feeding the population. We were all searching through a dense fog, trying to do what was needed for the population. 

That’s why this answer, when I first read it, blew my mind. That’s why my memories of those 3 weeks in the San Juan Convention Center still bother me. I believe with all my heart that we did the very best we could in a terrible situation. I will forever be sorry that what we were able to do wasn’t enough.

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