Excel as a High-Performing Agency

Aftermath of hurricanes in Puerto Rico prompts creation of a Facilitated Learning Analysis

The International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, after hurricane María. USDA Forest Service photo by Jerry Bauer.

Residents of the island of Puerto Rico remember past hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Georges (1998) as the big ones, the ones they endured as children, the ones that defined them. Until now. Imagine the back-to-back disasters of Category 5 hurricanes—Irma and Maria—hitting the island.

They affected the entire geographic area. Nearly every building sustained some type of damage, and some were a complete loss. There was widespread destruction to roadways, utility infrastructure, and communication sites. Hospitals were damaged and emergency services overwhelmed. There was no power except from generators. Fuel and water supplies ran low. Torrential rain continued for days and caused widespread flooding and landslides. Downed power lines and other hazards made travel precarious. There were limited means of communication.

While emergency resources came to the island, it took several days or weeks before they reached the island’s interior. A year after Maria, a substantial part of the island has electrical power, but there are still sections, and in some cases whole townships, where service has yet to be restored.

In December, three months after the hurricanes, acting Associate Chief Lenise Lago, Southern Region acting Regional Forester Ken Arney and acting Deputy Regional Forester Anna Briatico traveled to Puerto Rico assess how our recovery efforts in the island were coming along. They talked to island residents, listened attentively as they shared with us their heartfelt stories of what they went through during and after the hurricanes, and visited different parts of the island to view firsthand the extent of the damages. 

The storms of 2017 rewrote the history books and are permanently ingrained into this generation’s memories. In early September, Irma paralyzed the island and depleted personal reserves of water, food, fuel, and mental stamina. When Maria pounded the island two weeks later, the cumulative wreckage was unrivaled. What follows is a story of determination, struggle, and resiliency.

After this powerful and memorable visit, Lenise committed to moving forward and continue our work on behalf of our Puerto Rican colleagues. To that effect, two follow-up points were proposed:  

  1. Additional funding for immediate and ongoing rebuilding.
  2. Facilitated Learning Analysis on our response to the hurricanes. Some things could definitely be improved as a matter of policy or standard operating procedure. On the other hand, the ability to understand when the in-place policy doesn't account for or even contemplate the scope and scale of the situation is essential. We need to be more willing to take risks and support leaders in making on-the-ground decisions, such as when to procure and distribute emergency supplies like water, food, generators and batteries.

The magnitude and complexity of the one-two punch of hurricanes Irma and Maria is difficult to capture in words. A Facilitated Learning Analysis Team returned to Puerto Rico and conducted over 170 interviews with U.S. Forest Service employees and partners across Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland. The team listened to poignant personal stories and collected reflections on how the response and recovery operations transpired. The intent of this document is not to retell every aspect of the story. Rather, this is a moment in time captured to reveal lessons learned that may inform future decision-making when responding to natural disasters.

Cover to publication titled - Navigating Disasters: A facilitated learning analysis of  the ESF4 Response to the 2017 hurricane season. Picture shows a weather map of hurricane Maria as it's passing over Puerto Rico. Specifically, this analysis focuses on understanding the Forest Service’s efforts to directly support two distinct units on the island of Puerto Rico, El Yunque National Forest and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry.

The complete FLA is available through our SharePoint site at the following link: Puerto Rico Hurricane Response FLA. For the Spanish language version the following link: Puerto Rico Hurricane Response FLA - Spanish language version.

A separate and concurrent analysis examined how the Forest Service redeemed their Emergency Support Function 4 responsibilities during the 2017 hurricane season. As part of the National Response Framework, the Forest Service is specifically responsible for coordinating Emergency Support Function #4 under the Stafford Act. This national responsibility is defined as coordinating “the support for the detection and suppression of fires… [including] but not limited to: wildland, rural, and urban firefighting operations.”

The Forest Service’s role can encompass response to all-hazard events, such as hurricanes, where ESF4 resources provide a range of support. During the late summer and fall of 2017, the Forest Service was engaged in wildland firefighting activities across the western United States as predictions of serious hurricane activity began to emerge. This FLA report provides different perspectives on the Forest Service response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and attempts to draw lessons to strengthen the agency’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities when disasters occur in the future. The 2017 ESF4 Hurricane Response can be found on the World of Safety SharePoint site.