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Op-Ed: Has Puerto Rico learned anything from recent incidents and disasters?

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
– Albert Einstein

Jokingly, a meme on Facebook asks people from Puerto Rico to fill out a checklist regarding all the incidents and disasters they have endured. A hurricane, an earthquake, a pandemic, a lockdown and a blackout are among the choices. 

But if we really review our last 40 years of history, we have endured a whole lot. Let’s review: the Mameyes landslide; the Humberto Vidal explosion; the CAPECO explosion; Hurricane Georges; Hurricane Hugo; Hurricane Hortense; Hurricane Irma; Hurricane María; countless flooding events; wildfires in the southern coast; several droughts and water rationing; the Summer of 2019 protests; the Telephone Co. strike; the 2006 government shutdown; and many others that mostly produced a radical stop in everyday life. 

Now the question is, have we learned anything?  Are these lessons written anywhere? Do we follow the wisdom of what we have endured?  By this time, we should already have an encyclopedia of lessons learned and not have to delve into history repeating itself. 

According to the project management discipline lessons learned is the “learning gained from the process of performing the project” (PMI, 2004, p. 363). Wikipedia summarizes it as “recommendations for future behavior based on past experience, that can be positive or negative; can include recommendations about what to do/avoid or how to do/avoid; it can be based both on success or, failure of the past experience from which one learns.”

In an ideal world and with the experiences we have had, our government should have prepared plans, be somewhat equipped and prepared to mitigate what should have been the expected results of most incidents and potential disasters.  Unfortunately, we always fall on the same crack. 

An excellent 2006 article on the topic by Amy Donahue and Robert Tuohy indicates that “anecdotal evidence suggests mistakes are repeated incident after incident. It appears that while identifying lessons is relatively straightforward, true learning is much harder – lessons tend to be isolated and perishable, rather than generalized and institutionalized.” 

Their study nurtured from emergency managers and experienced responders by reviewing disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Oklahoma City bombing and the SARS epidemic, among others. Those participants indicated that in every post 2006 incident the recurring mistakes and failures pertained to five main areas of response: uncoordinated leadership, failed communications, weak planning, resource constraints, and poor public relations. 

How ironic! Didn’t those mistakes occur during María?

Donahue and Tuohy further found that “lessons are not clearly linked to corrective actions, then to training objectives, then to performance metrics, so it is difficult for organizations to notice that they have not really learned until the next incident hits and they get surprised.”  

Probably the most poignant reflection by Donahue and Tuohy is that “many opportunities to learn smaller but valuable lessons are foregone because formal reports are typically only generated for major events, not for small day-to-day incidents.”  

After María, many reports summarize what we collectively should have learned by now. But as expected, disparate organizations prepared their own take on the disaster perpetuating the silos that separate agencies, disciplines and professions. 

For example, two researchers from the Coastal Resilience Center prepared a report which is based on their perspective as University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez academics. Some other recommendations were prepared by local community nonprofits, newspapers, business magazines and other universities.  Of course there is always a Federal Emergency Management Agency After Action Report for María

Across the board it all boils down to that it is politically inconvenient to admit mistakes and own responsibility for gross negligence. Incidents and disasters will not go away and it is likely that with global warming they will be starker and more frequent. 

Wisdom comes from accepting mistakes and correcting them. Mistakes can only be corrected if we plan, train and conduct exercises that really address knowledge and skill gaps that need remedy in a secure setting.

Call it what you want, but the public safety and emergency management process has to be prioritized at the local level, with the state providing funding and evidence-based policies to support the real first responders. 

To be really prepared for incidents and disasters, significant investment in infrastructure is mandatory.  For politicians most of those investments are not “sexy.” They much rather display vehicles and tools, but they don’t authorize money for training, education, personnel, salaries, strong IT systems, and interoperable communications systems that can facilitate response and recovery. 

Author Jeffrey Quiñones is a Puerto Rico-based public affairs and homeland security professional.

The lessons learned process should be anchored in collecting data, having a mandate for its collection, make an entity responsible and using data for adequate decision making.  With technology and data analysis today, we can track and measure where and how many times crime happens, where and how often traffic accidents occur, how many times a particular location floods, how many people contract a disease, which infrastructure needs hardening, and where is dangerous to build a home.   

The current emergency is a global pandemic. There are plenty of lessons we can review from the 1918 flu pandemic. Are we learning anything?

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

1 Comment

  1. Paul Lutton July 21, 2020

    Exactly. Excellent article.


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