Before Hurricane Maria hit, Eric Spackey, the trim open-faced chief executive of Bluewater Defense, a Puerto Rican maker of U.S. military uniforms, was thinking about new markets, workplace efficiency and replacing the roof on the factory he has been renting from the island's industrial development agency.
Now Spackey is trying to put that life back together. The subject of a Washington Post article in July 2016, Spackey has been difficult to reach by phone since the hurricane but he managed to send an email on Thursday and speak briefly on the phone before losing communications contact again. His factory is just 60 miles from San Juan.
“This has been truly one of the most difficult experiences in my life, with the potential for becoming much worse,” he wrote. “Fortunately, I have the ancient Stoics as my guide,” he added, referring to his penchant for reading ancient philosophers such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
The storm, he said, did not do much damage to his house in Palmas del Mar, Humacao, though he said “there were moments of sheer terror as the winds shrieked by with a force and sound only found in the best horror movies.” A stream of water flowed down three flights of stairs from an upstairs terrace. He spent hours holding the doors and windows shut. Tree branches, roof tiles and shutters hurtled onto his yard from houses hundreds of yards away. When he finally got outside, he realized that the homes of many of his neighbors were destroyed.
Afterward he and a colleague shared “a few beers and shots of whiskey.”
The factory in Corozal was another matter. Spackey said that for two days the roads were impassable, but when he finally got through he found the factory badly damaged by wind and rain. The storm had stripped roofing off three of the buildings. He'd also discover that it had destroyed 20 to 30 percent of his employees’ homes. Yet when he arrived, his “team” had already started pulling debris out of the factory and was trying to salvage equipment and materials.
When I visited Spackey’s plant last year, rows of people transformed rolls of camouflage fabric into uniforms, with workers in each row specializing in pockets, zippers, belt loops and buttons.
“My entire production facility had one to two inches of water covering all [the] floors and offices,” Spackey said. “It seems the roof had been peeled off completely in areas, which made it look and feel like a giant indoor shower with water dripping down.”
He had asked the government to repair the roof “multiple times” and the only building to escape damage had its roof replaced less than two months ago. Unfortunately, he wasn’t using that building.
“Today, the cost of repair will be significant, as well as the cost to replace all of the equipment that was affected,” he wrote. Most of the automated machines have electronic controls for which “water is the enemy!” Water also damaged partially finished goods and goods awaiting shipment to the Pentagon, whose purchases have helped keep Bluewater alive.
But he has a diesel generator — an essential item given Puerto Rico's unreliable electricity grid even before Maria — and somehow he is expecting to start producing the combat trousers for the Army on Monday, Oct. 2. “For me, the main objective is to bring my people back to work and provide them a safe place to earn money, be in air conditioning and have a warm meal,” he wrote.
Amazed, he said that more than 250 people — about half his workforce — showed up for work on Monday to help bring back the facilities. “This is why I fight for Puerto Rico!” he wrote.
Spackey divided his letter into the good, bad and ugly. The good: his workers. “I’ve cried more than once listening to the pain in their voices as they described their losses. Fortunately no one was hurt.” By Friday next week, he hopes production will climb, and he has promised to rent a beer truck and provide free cold beer to the workers to celebrate that “small victory.”
Then there was the bad. “We asked FEMA for help, tarps to cover the open holes in our roof — only to be declined,” Spackey wrote. “We asked the local mayor to help by bringing a truck and digger so we can pick up all of the garbage and debris strew across the campus blocking [the] entrance to our facilities — only to be declined.”
Moreover, he said, “the situation of no power, water, fuel and communications has everyone nervous and anxious - just talk with anyone who spent 6+ hours waiting to get 5-10 gallons of gas, only to find out there is no gas by the time they reach the pumps.” He wrote this “further increases the concern that Puerto Rico is about to go over a cliff.”
The lack of communication also upsets him. “I spend 1-2 hours a day at the side of the road when I can get coverage,” he wrote. “As a former wireless telecom executive, I understand the challenges faced; however, I have never seen or experienced anything like this.
“Traveling to the plant, I see most towers along the way have sustained damage to the antennas, microwave alignment and cable trays. It will require extensive work before the networks are fully operational — and there is really no landline. Sadly, I have seen little progress at present, due to lack of materials, equipment and personnel.”
Lastly, he wrote, “water is probably the biggest current day-to-day challenge. With the intense heat and lack of air conditioning, you feel the lack of hydration more readily than when you could use a tap and draw a glass of water.”
On a brief separate phone call, Spackey said that he has been bathing in his swimming pool and that at home he has been drinking from the 300 bottles of water he had filled before the storm hit. But at the plant, he wrote in the email, “this will be one of the biggest challenges I face when starting the operations next week, along with getting enough fuel for my employees and enough diesel to run the plant.”
Spackey said workers “require bathrooms and drinking water. Although I have rented a number of Porta-Potties to mitigate certain biologic challenges, the lack of potable water is a real problem.”
Then there was the ugly.
“If the current situation continues, utter chaos will develop as people realize the local government lacks the ability to deliver basic services to the people,” he wrote. “The governor’s credibility is waning as he talks about the island being without power for six months; this is politics, not good leadership.”
“Years of bad government and poor executive leadership shows in nearly everything around the island,” he added. But he said “with the help from the Trump administration and Americans, Puerto Rico will not be left to less than third-world conditions.”
Long gasoline lines also angered him. “In my life, I have never seen anything so mismanaged. We have fuel, but no distribution. We have distribution, but no fuel.” He typed: “THIS IS A PRIORITY.”
Gasoline stations have also been limiting purchases to $5, $10 or $20, so “people are waiting in line for hours to get enough gas only to go home and come back the next day to get more gas.” He said that many of his employees cannot come to work due to this.
In Corozal, he said “we measured the line and it was more than one mile long. People were camped with umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun.”
Paying for things is another challenge. Without electricity or communications, stores can’t accept credit cards. Most ATMs have been out of service, though FEMA said Thursday that additional ones were opening. “Imagine, no one prepared to have large amounts of cash on hand for this situation,” Spackey wrote.
His interactions with officials have been discouraging so far. “My direct experience with FEMA and the municipality of Corozal show me they’re quick to shake hands, but slow to take action,” he said.
“It’s incredible…no fuel, no cash … NO FOOD. This is the crisis that is brewing,” he added. “If Puerto Ricans become too desperate due to lack of cash, fuel and food … 'all the wheels pop off the wagon’ and the island will fall into further chaos quicker than most understand.”
But he came back to the people who work for him. “I have faith we will overcome these difficulties,” he wrote. “My employees have shown me what Puerto Ricans are made of. These are good people, just suffering through desperate times.”
He then said “I can share more but sadly I’m running out of battery on my computer and I don’t have electricity to charge.”
“Thank you for your continued support,” he said. And suddenly he was done.