Sometimes it seems that the famous Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez had used Puerto Rico as the model for at least two of its best-selling novels. Many make reference to Puerto Rico being like “Macondo” from “100 Years of Solitude.”
As we endure the effects of Tropical Storm Isiah, and with the background of the letter sent by FEMA to Governor Wanda Vazquez, I am not reluctant to qualify the current situation as a Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold.
In a prior Op-Ed in News is My Business, I discussed how Puerto Rico’s current situation is a never-ending recovery marred by multiple plans but not much execution. My last piece kind of foretold that our government has not learned the lesson after multiple emergencies.
Therefore, this administrative disaster was in the making, proving that irrespective of administration public safety and emergency management have never been a true priority for any Puerto Rican government. It has hit the fan many times!!
And the reason is way too simple, it is not politically “sexy.” To plan and prepare for an emergency requires careful deliberations and buy-in from various government actors and private sector stakeholders, where any political considerations have to be taken off the table.
In an emergency, only first responders are available to respond and perform difficult tasks to save life and property, who require coordination support to have adequate resources to respond. The recovery process requires that decisions be based on the general welfare, they are not photo-opportunities.
Of course, nobody can be completely prepared for any emergency, incident or disaster, but there are means to mitigate the effects, by investing in the appropriate technology and infrastructure. This is where having a robust public safety/emergency interoperable communications system comes in handy, and it is currently another missed opportunity for the island.
What it is obvious (and few in the government are willing to acknowledge) is that at the Puerto Rico Department of Public Security (DPS) has a bureaucratic/political tug of war with the Bureau for Emergency and Disaster Management (NMEAD, in Spanish). This happens because with the creation of the DSP it was thought that the organizational culture “silos” between fire, medical emergency, police, and emergency management would be automatically resolved. That did not happen and will not anytime soon. It was a shoddy copy of the Department of Homeland Security.
And the DSP and all the agencies under its umbrella will continue to be ineffective until they are decentralized. Puerto Rico is the only jurisdiction within the U.S. flag that has a centralized, state-controlled fire, police and emergency medical services.
As a society, we still see as effective public administration that a bureaucrat in San Juan should make life and death decisions over what happens in Cabo Rojo. That is ludicrous.
The NMEAD should be a policy and coordination entity that should assist first responders at the municipal level to receive what the need, whether from the state government and later from the federal government. NMEAD can provide the training and exercises needed for local leaders, responders and citizens. In an ideal world, NMEAD should have under its purview the administration of a regionalized 9-1-1 system, anchored by a robust and resilient public safety/emergency interoperable communications system.
The bottom line is that the letter sent by FEMA still remains as an invitation to fix what is not working. This requires political will and insight. In whatever form you choose, the first response process has to managed at the local level where its closest to people.
What’s it going to take?