It was a little over five weeks ago when I received a call and subsequent offer from Chris Tarantino to be a part of Epicenter Media & Training‘s Deployment Support Unit (EDSU) heading to Puerto Rico. The initiative? To provide technical assistance in the seemingly intractable effort to rebuild a land ravaged by a supercharged tempest named Maria. In hindsight, the slogan, “Puerto Rico, Se Levanta” (which literally means “Puerto Rico, Get up, Rise up!”), was ubiquitous on buildings as well as within the collective local consciousness. Recognizing the rarity of opportunities of this kind, I first solicited the support of my loved ones and then staged gear for a 30-day push into the unknown.
To date, upwards of 124,000 refugees and homeowners have been identified for federal assistance via the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power – Puerto Rico (STEP PR) program, as a direct result of their tangles with Maria back in 2017. Though many people have chosen to leave the devastation behind to start fresh elsewhere (a troubling prospect for the local economy), a fraction of those that still remain on the “Isla del Encanto” have inquired to assist in the re-build. On the operations side, it was EDSU’s job to ensure that newly inducted workers were trained properly and could demonstrate competency before heading out into the field to inspect homes. Furthermore, we were the “middle man” between the construction project managers, program heads and field inspectors – working to make sure everyone could utilize a system known as Disaster LAN (or “DLAN”) that was developed for this very purpose by BCG. DLAN allows mass amounts of information (e.g., that relating to people, hours, progress and resources) to be collected and actively staged for inquiry.
Once on the ground, I met up with three other team members who would become my colleagues in a “home-away-from-home”; our support team included Lizz Floro (Masters in Emergency Management), Steve Emerick (30+ years of experience working with the state of NY, e.g., as a GIS specialist) and Alex Schmittendorf (son of the legendary NY IMT veteran, Tiger S., and one who has a knack for numbers and operations). We learned, upon walking into the impromptu operations center at 7:00 AM on day 1, that the next few weeks would be like “drinking from a fire hose”. It was up to each of us on the EDSU team to ascertain where our respective skill sets could best be put to use and quickly get to it.
Drawing upon experience, I quickly learned the quintessential functions of DLAN, became conversational in its capabilities and provided DLAN tutorials for rotating crews of 50-75 would-be field inspectors. My goal was to get people in, educated, and out to the field in the shortest time possible. Next, Mr. Emerick leveraged his vast understanding of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to work up a reference map of the whole of Puerto Rico for supervisors and project managers (screen captures below are courtesy of Steve Emerick). It was fascinating to watch Mr. Emerick access the store of spatial computer data and create workable political and physical visuals within a matter of days. His maps outlined each construction zone – linked to the respective construction firm by color – and were replete with annotations to provide more useable insight for the project decision makers and scheduling personnel. He was then able to save his graphics in a portable file format and upload them to the DLAN system to be displayed after our stint had finished. Finally, Ms. Floro and Mr. Schmittendorf became aficionados of routine quality control; by the middle of the second week, their keen sense and intuition helped them effortlessly strike out anything out-of-the-ordinary in the DLAN system. Translated, the implication is that tens of thousands of dollars and necessary work hours were saved by the hands of these two on the EDSU team.
We also worked alongside the Emergency Preparedness Resource Group – led by Lance Ross and supported by Terry Stoltzman, Joe Savage, Chris Breitbach and Marlyn Halvorson. By the third week, we had established a rhythm of “putting out fires”, holding routine stand-up meetings and doing so while allowing for everyone to get enough rest to be effective on the job. All this is to say that we took the strain of dealing with one-off issues away from BCG so that they could work through the real nuts and bolts of project execution. We began to extend our efforts outward working directly with project managers and construction lead personnel, in effect providing a communications channel between DLAN users and BCG. As each new request for system functionality came in from outside, we aimed to translate the key elements to BCG’s internal engineering and development teams for a faster turn-around; as such, several versions of the DLAN software were tested and subsequently released during our time on the ground, thus demonstrating agility and adaptability in practice.
When we think of relief and disaster recovery work, “getting the hands dirty” often rings true. However, this deployment demanded a greater constitution – to just show up each day and enable field inspectors as well as those in the operations centers around the island to do their jobs efficiently. And so after roughly 4 weeks on the ground in the midst of it all, we can say that a few more people have electricity, water and a rigid roof over their heads. Next time, we can hope that a more resilient group of islanders, armed with their experience and support from the rest of us, will take measures to mitigate, absorb and recover from a disaster like Maria in 2018 and beyond. For now, on to the next project.