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Reflections of Opal and Why Trump’s Response to Maria’s Monumental Strike on Puerto Rico is, Thus Far, Vastly Inadequate

As a veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard, I’ve responded to my fair share of natural disasters. And having responded to some of the costliest and most devastating storms to strike the U.S. in the 90s, I know what it means when damage estimates, as they do now with Maria, hit a range of 30-95 billion dollars. When you get reports that evacuees are fleeing Puerto Rico with many saying they will never return.

It means total devastation of infrastructure requiring an equally unprecedented level of response to effectively manage a disaster of a class that we are not presently used to dealing with. And without an effective response, you get exactly what we are seeing now — refugees fleeing what has become, through neglect, a sacrifice zone.

(Editorial note — too little, too late.)

The present response to Maria by the Trump Administration is comparable to the level of response to Hurricane Opal. Opal was a devastating storm in its own right. But the damage inflicted by Opal was more than an order of magnitude less than the damage inflicted by Maria. Our response, therefore, must be equal to the level of harm and dislocation inflicted by the disaster. 5,000 troops and FEMA responders for Maria is, therefore, about 45,000 short of the mark.

Moreover, we can absolutely say that failure to pre-position an adequate number of troops, supplies and ships leading up to this disaster, a failure to secure a means of entry into Puerto Rico for troops and other emergency relief workers, a failure to establish law and order in devastated regions, and a failure to adequately and in a coordinated manner work to re-establish infrastructure and communications on the island is leading to a combined expanding disaster and mass exodus.

Reflections on the Effective Response to Opal

Back in 1995, when category 4 Hurricane Opal was roaring toward the Florida Panhandle packing 150 mph sustained winds, I received word of my mobilization while sitting in Shakespeare class, interrupted from listening to the lilting voice of my professor recite the bard in the idyllic halls of Flagler College.

It was October 3rd. And with the storm expected to make landfall sometime early on October 4, troops were already being called in. Units were already prepping. And supplies were already being pre-positioned.

My unit, an Infantry Company based out of Sanford Florida, possessed air mobile capabilities. This meant we linked up with a helicopter unit, mounted up, and performed the functions of air cavalry and air assault. A majority of the unit were ex-Rangers or Special Ops types serving out their retirement in the Guard. The rest were mostly ‘green’ college-age kids like me and a number of police officers, public servants, and school teachers. Our commanding officer was a Bank exec — your archetypal citizen-soldier. Our ranking NCO was a company first sergeant and ex-Ranger who’d served multiple tours in Vietnam.

(When hurricane Opal made landfall along the Florida Panhandel, it became the third most costly hurricane to ever strike the U.S. at the time. Hurricane Maria [above] was larger than even Opal — which at the time was considered to be one of the largest strong storms to strike the U.S. Its impacts devastated the entire island of Puerto Rico — not just a single long stretch of coastline. In dollar estimates, Maria is presently ten times more costly than Opal. However, with the economy of Puerto Rico less vibrant than that of the Florida panhandle, comparative damages are far more extensive. Image source: Commons.)

In the event of war, our mission was to support the 82nd Airborne. But in this peace-time disaster relief operation, our goal was to put first boots on the ground in the disaster area. To assess damage, establish rule of law and order, establish communications, secure key infrastructure, protect life and property, and to establish secure points of entry for disaster relief supplies and technical relief personnel such as medical professionals, engineers, and FEMA personnel.

The lessons-learned from devastating Hurricane Andrew were fresh on our minds as we readied for a hit that some thought could be as bad or worse.

A Far More Effective Mobilization and Response

For my part, mobilization meant cramming my individual gear into my personal vehicle — a 50 mpg Honda CRX — and making an unexpected drive from St. Augustine to Sanford to join with my unit on the afternoon of October 3. As with the environments around most hurricanes, the weather at the time was fair. But a tall, white outflow plume could be seen far off to the west.

Arrival at the unit was met with the usual flurry of activity. Most of our supplies had already been sent out on two and a half ton trucks to a pre-position location in the Pan Handle, but far enough away from the expected path of the storm not to put the unit at serious risk. We drew weapons, communications equipment, and packed up on food and water. Someone issued water purification tablets. I was the radio guy for my platoon — which was a recon platoon modeled after similar units in the U.S. Army’s Ranger divisions. So I picked up that heavy thing and loaded out with the necessary lithium batteries.

Flooding can be seen from the air as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, DHC-8 prepares to land in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, September 22, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Kris Grogan. More than a week after Maria, the situation in Puerto Rico is arguably getting worse. After a few days of a well organized response and relief effort following Opal, impacted regions had already begun to recover.

We piled into our two and a half ton trucks — which we called duces — and headed out.

By late that evening we arrived at a local school gym in some small town inland in the panhandle. Spreading out on the floor of the gym — we mostly slept. This is a habit you pick up on real quick in the military — sleep when you can, because you don’t know when you’re going to get it next.

Outside, the winds picked up, and tree limbs fell to the ground as Opal’s outer tropical-storm-force bands lashed over our location.

As soon as conditions had relented early that morning, we were loading up into our trucks and running out to a local tar-mac. Helicopters were waiting at the airport. Some of us, including me, piled into the ‘copters. The rest formed a convoy that would attempt to forge a land route out to the beaches along the far western Panhandle. Places like Destin Beach, Fort Walton Beach, and Gulf Breeze near Pensacola.

But those of us on the helicopters would be first in to the disaster area.

Opal had weakened as it roared into the coast. Still packing 115 mph winds, the storm had pushed a massive 15 foot storm surge through the region we were now approaching. From the air, we could see large sections of barrier islands that were literally cut in half. A one-mile section of coastal highway 98 was completely taken out by the surge. Most barrier islands were park beaches. But damage to homes along waterways and the shore line was immediately apparent. In parts, the homes had been completely removed from their foundations as if they were never there in the first place.

(In Navarre Beach, storm surge damage from Opal was quite extensive. In places, homes were washed across barrier islands and into the sound. Image source: Weather.gov. Maria’s impacts were far more widespread and severe.)

Power lines and trees were down everywhere and damage was extensive — if no-where near rivaling the wind-caused devastation of Andrew. Most causeways to the islands appeared to have suffered extensive damage and it appeared that the convoy was going to have a tough time getting in.

After getting a visual assessment from the air, we located a relatively clear landing zone in Destin and set down. Immediately, we began to set up a forward base of operations while sending out patrols into the nearby cities. In the hardest hit sections, we placed armed guards at intersections as a show of force to reassure the public and prevent looting. Residents who’d stayed had lost power entirely. Many were grilling all the food in their refrigerators — engaged in an odd kind of block party where once the food was gone, it was uncertain when one would get more. We handed out some of the water we had (a few pallets had come on the ‘copters) and let people know where we were setting up aid locations for food, water, and medical attention.

We were initially very concerned about individuals needing immediate medical attention or those trapped in buildings. But at our location, it appeared that most people were fortunate — aside from the odd scrapes, bruises and gouges. Most residents near the immediate coast appeared to have gotten out before the massive storm surge rolled in, which was a blessing.

Reports of looting at a local car dealership came in and our platoon dispatched a squad to secure the area, apprehend and detain looters, and secure car keys so that no vehicles were stolen. And that was all on day one.

Over the next few days we slowly re-established order and rapidly widened the aid chain. It was a rough hit, but not as bad as Andrew, and it looked like the region was on the road to recovery.

Quantifying the Urgent Need for a Larger Response

Hurricane Opal inflicted 5.1 billion dollars of damages — mostly to the Florida and Alabama coasts and inland due to very heavy rainfall totaling up to 15 inches. The storm killed 63 people. In total, 3,500 National Guard troops and 700 police officers were mobilized to respond to the disaster. As you can see from the above account, much of this mobilization effort occurred prior to the storm striking land.

In contrast, Hurricane Maria has inflicted far greater damage over a much wider region. Total damage estimates for Maria now range between 30 and 95 billion dollars. Maria’s winds were close to 150 mph at landfall and the thunderstorms associated with this very powerful hurricane dumped as much as 40 inches of rain over Puerto Rico. As of one week and a day following Maria striking Puerto Rico, the Department of Defense had only mobilized 4,500 troops. Members of the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, recommend sending 50,000 — which would be an appropriate response.¬†

Due to a failure to immediately mobilize the forces necessary to deal with such a massive disaster, Puerto Rico remains on its knees. Reports are coming in that looting is expanding even as people grow desperate after being unable to access food, water, electricity and controlled climates for more than a week. Many homes have been destroyed and the homeless are mostly destitute and without help as disaster relief organizers blunder about trying to reach them. Meanwhile, thousands are leaving a Puerto Rico that looks, increasingly, as if it was basically abandoned for at least one week following one of the most devastating strikes by a hurricane in the Caribbean on record.

To be very clear, this thus far totally inadequate response to Maria is a failure of leadership at the highest levels.

Links:

Hurricane Maria Could Be a 95 Billion Dollar Storm for Puerto Rico

50,000 Troops Needed for Puerto Rico

U.S. Response to Puerto Rico Pales Next to Haiti Quake

Hurricane Opal

Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Opal Floods Florida

Hurricane Maria Dumps 40 Inches of Rain on Puerto Rico

Evacuees Leave Puerto Rico by Cruise Ship — Some Doubting They Will Ever Return

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