P.R. gov’t agencies adopt changes to improve emergency response ahead of Dorian
Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez-Garced announced a number of measures that government agencies have taken to face the looming threat from Tropical Storm Dorian, which is expected to pass near Puerto Rico as a hurricane later this week.
During a news conference at the Emergency and Disaster Management Bureau, Vázquez-Garced said plans have undergone “significant changes after Hurricane María” struck in 2017.
“Hurricane María served as a lesson and almost two years after its devastating passage, today we can say we are better prepared,” said Vázquez-Garced.
She went on to outline some of the most significant changes adopted at the different agencies.
At the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, there is an inventory of more than 23,000 posts, more than 120,000 lights and more than 7,400 transformers. Prior to Hurricane María, the public utility did not have any of those materials, counting on a $22 million inventory. The governor said emergency supplies are now worth $141 million.
Meanwhile, she said PREPA has signed collaboration agreements with 33 U.S. mainland-based power companies for immediate response through personnel and equipment; a Master Service Agreement with 50 local companies for immediate response personnel and equipment; nine local companies to repair lighting; two local companies for vegetation control; and a $250 million contract with Foreman Electric.
In the area of generation, she said PREPA has three mega portable generators with an 80-watt capacity at the Palo Seco power facility in Cataño. Similarly, it has three emergency generators on the island municipality of Culebra that generate 6 megawatts of emergency power. Prior to Hurricane María, this did not exist, she said.
As for satellite phones, PREPA now has 65 units and also has agreements in place with KP4 fans for radio communication.
Although she outlined the utility’s alleged preparedness, on Monday, it was reported that 11 of PREPA’s 16 generation plans are out of service.
Meanwhile, at the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, there are 80 water cistern trucks and 1,000 emergency generators. Eighty-seven of them will be used as needed, and another 17 are fixed at the most critical facilities. The utility also has storage facilities for chemicals and fuel for the generators.
As for the Department of Public Safety, the governor said there is now greater integration between local and federal emergency staff in comparison to when Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017.
“Emergency plans then fell short to handle the catastrophic event, plus the lack of communication did not allow the coordination of efforts,” Vázquez-Garced said.
The Puerto Rico Police Department, which is under the Department of Public Safety’s umbrella, now has power generators, satellite phones and equipment needed to provide service.
“Within 48 hours prior to an atmospheric event, the Police Commissioner will meet with area commanders to give instructions, and within 24 hours of the imminent passage, days off and holidays are suspended, and 12-hour work shifts are set,” the governor said.
Medical Emergency personnel have been equipped with power generators at the three regional offices and at one of the sites where communication antennas are located, to ensure continuity.
“All emergency operational plans were reviewed and worked on together with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Puerto Rico Health Department and the Hospitals Coalition, which includes specific details on how to manage patients during atmospheric events,” the governor said.
“They have fuel stored to supply ambulances if necessary, and power generators were purchased,” she said.
The Health Department has certified more than 2,000 health professionals who are authorized to fill out death certificates, document causes of death and disaster-related mortality.
The agency also now has the “EMResource” application that provides status of hospitals, such as beds available, the capacity of its utilities, oxygen, and medical supplies, among others.
Similarly, the Health Department has a report of about 70 hospitals throughout the island with detailed information on the status of their power generators and water supplies in their cisterns.
Telecommunications now an essential service
Prior to Hurricane María, telecommunications were not considered as an essential service. They are now, Vázquez-Garced confirmed.
Prior to the 2017 storm, telecom service depended heavily on PREPA poles and the number of power generators that existed then were not enough to reach the totality of the island’s telecom infrastructure, such as towers and antennas, among others.
There were no roaming agreements among wireless providers two years ago. Now, there is less dependence on power poles as they have buried 1,000 additional miles of fiber. The companies also reached an agreement PREPA to prioritize restoring power to areas where the service is indispensable.
There is also an additional resource in the FirstNet emergency network, which will give the government access to portable microwave units that will offer wireless service and 250 amateur radio operators will be available for emergency management in municipalities.
Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico Housing Department has 360 shelters available throughout the island. Of those, 232 are primary, 103 are alternate and 25 are temporary. They have a combined capacity for 48,500 people.
The Education Department has 256 schools ready to serve as shelters, six warehouses with enough food for 300,000 people for 17 days.
The Family Department has more than 7 million pounds of food that can be distributed islandwide after getting the approval from Food Nutrition Services. In addition, the warehouse has 27,000 pounds of food for the pilot Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which serves the elderly and low-income population.
The Consumer Affairs Department said that as of Aug. 23, the island had supplies of regular gasoline for 30 days; 44 days of premium gasoline; 39 days of diesel; and 128 days of liquefied gas.
Hotels at 70% occupancy, cruises ships alter routes
The Puerto Rico Tourism Co. reported that there are 154 hotel properties with 12,815 rooms available. The average occupancy rate is 70%.
As for cruise ships, the agency confirmed that The Symphony of the Seas moved up its scheduled stop in San Juan to today, while the Allure of the Seas canceled its Wednesday stop. The Carnival Breeze is expected to cancel or modify its route which called for a stop in San Juan today.
Meanwhile, Aerostar, which operates the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, has activated its internal plan, which calls for coordination efforts with federal and state agencies, and subsequently, with airport concessions, the airlines and other components. The island’s main air hub is currently resupplying power plants, and securing additional fuel, the governor said.