Leadership Corner

Impressions from Puerto Rico

December 4th, 2017 at 2:30PM

Photo: Lenise Lago
Lenise Lago, Deputy Chief for Business Operations, Forest Service photo.

Many of you have heard of a Leadership Framework we are exploring in the Forest Service, which calls on us to adopt a “Leadership Stance” that consists of four principles: Stewarding the Whole, Sharing Leadership, Seeing Opportunity and Being in Community. I recently traveled to Puerto Rico to visit our employees and facilities there and to bring attention and support to the ongoing hurricane recovery efforts. What I found there was so moving and inspiring I wanted to share it with the entire Forest Service community. It is the embodiment of our Leadership Stance.

I traveled to Puerto Rico with Ken Arney, acting Regional Forester for the Southern Region, and Anna Briatico, acting Deputy Regional Forester. We visited employees of the International Institute for Tropical Forestry, led by Dr. Ariel Lugo, and employees of El Yunque National Forest, led by Forest Supervisor Sharon Wallace. Each asked their employees to share two things with us — What were your most vivid impressions? What are you thankful for?

As we went around the circle, the stories were so real and heartfelt. Employees shared their perspectives about: not just the fear of the storm itself, but the aftermath and continuing depravations; the sounds of the hurricane as they huddled in the bathroom; being scared for hours; comforting their children; the inability to get food, water, medicine, gas and medical attention; and standing in line for four, six and 12 hours. They also talked about the fear of the deteriorating social state, feeling let down and feeling forgotten.

Their vivid impressions were gripping, but I found I was transfixed at their stories of what they were grateful for. They talked about their faith and reliance and support from their families, the agency, neighbors, and institute and forest leadership; coming through it, how employees showed up for work the day after the hurricane and every day thereafter — especially when they had the opportunity to leave and didn't. They wanted to stay and help. Throughout the stories, their love for the island itself and El Yunque, the mountain and the forest, came through.

As we toured the island and facilities I observed firsthand how much remains to be done. Power lines are still down and much of the island is still without power. Most traffic lights are not operating. Uniformed and service people from all over the mainland United States are providing assistance. We saw piles of debris, piles of sand, blown away roofs and miles of blue tarp. But we also saw smiles. We were treated with respect and friendliness. 

When I contemplate the recovery so far, I know not enough has been done. The island and our facilities, including all major infrastructure like buildings, power systems, roads, trails and research investment, received sustained damage. Rebuilding will require major investments and the recent hearing Chief Tooke testified at was an excellent opportunity to share details of what the recovery is going to take. And as I took stock of what has been done so far, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of the tremendous leadership showing up each and every day there. Confronted with a set of circumstances unlike any we have prepared for, leaders (Sharon Wallace and Ariel Lugo on the ground, our Incident Command System, and Ken Arney and Anna Briatico in Atlanta) did what was right for people. They secured supplies, provided jobs and shelter. They hired local people to help with the recovery. They helped restore normalcy and order in an abnormal and chaotic situation.

Moving forward I am committed to work on behalf of our Puerto Rican colleagues for two things:  

  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.
    Photo: A group of people, some in uniform, some in hard hats and work equipment, pose in front of a building.
    Employees, contractors, volunteers and partners help restore El Yunque National Forest. Forest Service photo.