The author, Bryan Norcross, is senior hurricane specialist at The Weather Channel and author of “My Hurricane Andrew Story.”
All Americans should be horrified by the depth of the tragedy in Puerto Rico. While we can’t forget our friends who are suffering in Texas and Florida — especially in the Keys — from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the Puerto Rican tragedy is on a different scale.
The island’s power, water, and communications infrastructure was debilitated and substantially destroyed when Hurricane Maria raked the island from end to end one week ago. Every town is a disaster area. The Army says that over a million people have no drinking water. Many people have not yet been able to contact to the outside world just to confirm that they are alive. It is impossible to describe the scope of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands.
Despite superhuman efforts on the part of FEMA and innumerable agencies and organizations to provide aid and alleviate suffering, the despair is still deepening in untouched parts of the island. The entire island is entering its second week in a condition that can only be described as unlivable.
While every catastrophe is different, the images and descriptions of apocalyptic destruction combined with large-scale suffering reminded me of the scenes of devastation and isolation I saw after Hurricane Andrew demolished the suburbs south of Miami in August 1992. Despite the best efforts of many good people working around the clock deploying every resource at their disposal, the Andrew disaster zone was simply too big to control, the numbers of people in peril were too large. Three days after the storm, in the pitch-black nights and tropical heat with looters running free, the southern part of Dade County, Fla., slipped into chaos. Anarchy ruled.
In the end, the U.S. Army was required to bring order to the madness.
As I recounted in my book, “My Hurricane Andrew Story,” which was published earlier this year, one of the most important lessons we learned from the Hurricane Andrew experience was that the civilian systems for dealing with a major disaster cannot handle a cataclysm, no matter the skill of the administrators or the intensity of the effort. What follows is the Andrew lesson labeled, “Send in the Troops”:
The only entity in our society that can bring command and control to a catastrophe zone is the United States military. They come with housing, transportation, communications, and guns. Any catastrophe plan that doesn’t have the military on the ground with a general in charge of organization and security immediately after the event is not a catastrophe plan.
In a mega disaster, everybody is affected, and has post-event chores and responsibilities. Rare is the public servant who can dedicate themselves to disaster recovery with no concern for his or her home, family, pet, and myriad post-storm issues.
Only the military has the heft to make a dent in a disaster scene like Andrew produced. Every hour their deployment is delayed adds an hour of pain and torment for people caught in the destruction zone.
The U.S. military is increasingly becoming involved in the Puerto Rican response effort, which is a good sign, but the comparisons with the eventual Andrew response are stark. The Andrew catastrophe zone was, perhaps, 250 square miles and involved about 350,000 people — closer to 100,000 after those that could resettled elsewhere did. It took about 20,000 troops and military-support personnel to provide security, housing, communications, and other critical services after Andrew. They were still operating the Homestead tent city eight months after the storm.
Puerto Rico is about 3,500 square miles and home to about 3.4 million people. Having seen firsthand the crisis that developed in the first few weeks after Andrew, and the seeming endlessness of the 1992 disaster zone, it is impossible for me to imagine the scope of the calamity engulfing Puerto Rico. And, having learned that only the military has the ability to deliver men, materiel, organization and leadership in the time frame required, I am left to wonder why that Andrew lesson wasn’t applied to this catastrophic situation, which is at least an order of magnitude larger.