At a time when the island is keeping an eye on the still distant Hurricane Isaac, the local government already has a new Strategic Plan for Puerto Rico that considers how to handle the problems faced by the island after Hurricane María.
"The Strategic Plan was revised. And we are already doing exercises based on the plan. That is already finished," said FEMA’s Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer in Puerto Rico, Justo "Tito" Hernández, in an interview with El Nuevo Día.
The changes are intended to correct errors that were made before, during and after the hurricane. In addition, the document already required amendments, in line with federal regulations. As a rule, the Strategic Plan is modified every five years and the one in force was created in October 2014. It was revised after Hurricane Maria.
Although this state plan is ready, the Emergency Management Plan of each municipality has not yet been certified by the Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management (NMEAD, Spanish Acronym) or FEMA, acknowledged the commissioner of the state agency, Carlos Acevedo.
"The plans, I am waiting for the company (hired to develop them) to deliver them to me. And they should be handing me the plans tomorrow (today)," said the official.
Faced with this scenario, the documents have not yet been made public.
However, both Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and Acevedo pointed out -in separate interviews- that the government is prepared to face the challenges of the new hurricane season.
As examples of the preparation on the island, Rosselló Nevares said that now "people" have an emergency plan, there were workshops "throughout Puerto Rico on how to develop those personal emergency plans", that changes were made at federal, state and municipal levels regarding the distribution of food and medication, and that another "public health response" will be implemented.
However, Rosselló Nevares recognized that the "infrastructure" - including the homes of thousands of families that still have blue tarps on their roofs and the power grid - remain vulnerable.
"It is no less true that, although there are parts that are more robust, it is a somewhat more fragile (power) grid. Therefore, we want to change and transform it, "said the governor, in referring to the process he has begun to privatize the Electric Power Authority (PREPA).
"There are significant improvements, particularly in the area of preparation, but without a doubt, Puerto Rico remains vulnerable, particularly in the infrastructure area," he added.
A "bit of luck"
The governor added that this scenario will require quick action to transform the power grid and "a bit of luck that an event like María or even a lower-category one, does not impact Puerto Rico, again, and further collapse areas that are already vulnerable."
He assured that already - and unlike last year, when the government contacted the the American Public Power Association (APPA) with a month of delay after the cyclone - agreements with energy companies have been reached.
He added that other initiatives "take time, but are being executed." In that line, he mentioned that 64 people are being trained to exercise "very particular functions" amid the emergency, however he did not detail who they are or what tasks they would perform.
Regarding the failures showed by the government primary and support agencies -and their respective leaders- in the management of an emergency, Rossello Nevares said that "people have been trained based on these new protocols."
Even so, experts in emergency management indicated that there are still controversies in critical areas in the government regarding the experience that Puerto Ricans lived on September 20, when the hurricane left the island without energy and communications services, and with multiple shortages and fatalities.
The preparation that the government claims to have was questioned by the former executive director of the former State Office for Emergency and Disaster Management, Epifanio Jiménez, who reiterated that the problem after Maria was the lack of implementation of the existing plans.
"They're using Maria's category 5 as a pretext - which is true, it's a precedent - but they use it as an excuse to justify the collapse of agencies and agency leaders because, when Hurricane Georges hit, the leaders knew their work and the island recovered after 32 days," said Jiménez, who worked under a past administration of the New Progressive Party.
A simple look at the 2014 Strategic Hurricane Plan, which experts say was not followed, reveals that the Health, Family, Emergency Management Agency, and General Services Administration (SGA) departments, among other government agencies, failed in its functions before, during and after the cyclone.
Moreover, if all of these agencies had fulfilled their responsibilities, fatalities estimated today at 2.975 would have been avoided, according to the study by the Milken Institute of the George Washington University (GWU) and which was accepted by the government of Puerto Rico.
"The government did not follow the Strategic Plan (of 2014) and the Emergency Management Plan, they began with an improvisation process where the heads of agencies did not know what their role was before, during and after the emergency," said former AEMEAD executive director, Nazario Lugo.
The Strategic Plan is ruled by the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which establishes and defines the entire procedure for emergency management. It is backed by presidential orders. FEMA works on it with state authorities.
It also details the function of what is called the Emergency Support Function (ESF), which is nothing more than the function that each agency will have before, during and after an emergency.
"No one complied with the ESF. They were not implemented effectively," said Carlos Muñoz, emergency manager with 45 years of experience.
Some of the changes
The NMEAD commissioner said that now the Department of Family Affairs has a list of vulnerable groups. He added that the emergency management center integrated the private sector, and even had training.
That is nonsense," said Jimenez, and immediately recalled that the private sector was already integrated into emergencies, because there must be agreements with agencies, such as ASG.
To avoid the collapse of communications, Acevedo said they now have a voice and data satellite system.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Board (JRT, Spanish acronym) and the NMEAD have a list of radio amateurs to use analog communication, if necessary, he added.
"That has to be refined, and the JRT has to make sure that the private sector responds," said Jiménez.
Acevedo, meanwhile, said the services of cell phone companies, which also collapsed after the hurricane, is an issue that remains in the hands of the private sector.
He also said that he held meetings with the directors of hospitals and dialysis centers on the island. He stressed that each party has increased its capacity to provide services, but insisted that they are "private systems."