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GSA reflects on response to 2017 Caribbean hurricanes
January 19, 2018
By Alison Kohler
The story below is the first in a series looking back on GSA’s response and recovery efforts in the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. Part 1 reflects on GSA’s initial response efforts to assess and reopen GSA leased and owned facilities and GSA’s support to our interagency partners in the whole community response. Part 2 reviews GSA’s progress in the recovery phase. Part 3 focuses on how GSA relied on partnership among people to respond and recover from the Caribbean hurricanes.
Before it made landfall, Hurricane Maria was simply the “newest” hurricane in 2017, but upon landfall, it became the “worst” in terms of deaths, damage and destruction on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Despite the magnitude of the disaster, GSA made progress in its mission to restore continuity of the federal government and speed the recovery toward normalcy.
Nov. 30 brought the end of 2017 Atlantic hurricane season with a total of 17 named storms, of which six became major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
After only a few days in St. Thomas conducting damage assessments following Hurricane Irma, which struck Sept. 6, GSA Region 2 employees from New York had to be recalled and leave the island before Hurricane Maria would strike Sept. 20.
“Hurricane Irma was a wake-up call. It hit St. Thomas pretty badly and brought strong winds and some destruction to the northeast part of Puerto Rico, but no one expected another Cat 5 shortly after,” said Edgar Hernandez, manager of GSA’s Caribbean Field Office.
Hurricane Maria caused catastrophic damage to much of Puerto Rico, including devastating transportation, agriculture, communication and energy infrastructure, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's National Centers for Environmental Information.
On the evening of Sept. 20, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority reported nearly 100 percent of total customers in Puerto Rico were without power, with the exception of facilities running on generators, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sept. 21 morning situation report.
Only 44 percent of Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority customers had running water one week post-storm, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and 82 cell phone towers were operational after the storm, providing cell phone service to just 5 percent of the population.
GSA had several major responsibilities in the wake of the disaster.
“Some building and property managers rode out the storm in our properties; others dedicated long hours for over three weeks without a day off, not even on weekends,” Hernandez said.
Several GSA employees from the Office of Mission Assurance and other divisions reported to FEMA’s Interim Operational Facility, Joint Information Center and National Regional Response Center to facilitate efforts in support of the National Response Framework’s Emergency Support Function #7. GSA serves as a primary agency on ESF-7, which is responsible for logistics management and resource support, such as emergency relief supplies, facility space, office equipment and supplies, contracting support, transportation, and telecommunications and information technology.
Leasing contracting officers deployed from New York and other regions to the Caribbean to assist with leasing nearly 16 million rentable square feet of space throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on behalf of FEMA to support the recovery phase with operations, call centers, storage and other needs with a value of $7.3 million, according to Roy Crowe, deputy regional director and regional emergency coordinator, GSA’s Eastern Region.
GSA’s Zone 1 Fleet Management Program sourced more than 450 vehicles through the Short Term Rental program and provided almost 200 government-owned vehicles to federal agency customers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Crowe.
GSA’s Public Buildings Service manages government real estate needs, and immediately began assessing damage to GSA-owned and leased space in which federal agencies operate. Before the storm, GSA’s real estate portfolio in the Caribbean was almost 2 million square feet of real estate within eight owned buildings and 102 leases for federal agency tenants.
A contingent of technical experts such as architects, engineers and industrial hygienists from New York augmented Caribbean-based employees to conduct damage assessments of the more than 100 leased and owned facilities. Some 98 percent of the locations had minor to major damage from the 2017 hurricanes.
With a comprehensive effort, GSA was able to reopen many of its buildings relatively quickly despite the magnitude of the damage. The initial reopening at many of GSA’s buildings was only possible because employees arranged for regular generator refueling, scheduled generator maintenance outside of peak operation hours, and obtained bottled water until the permanent source was available and confirmed safe to drink.
“GSA was able to get our buildings up and running before most private and local government were able to, allowing many other federal agencies to restart operations,” Hernandez said.
Nationally, GSA’s Disaster Relief Program, through GSA Advantage, assists federal, state and local governments in acquiring supplies, equipment, and services in disasters.
To enable quick access to disaster resources and personnel, GSA increased its micro purchase limit for GSA’s government credit card purchases to $20,000 and also increased its maximum lodging rate by 300 percent for GSA travelers on official business.
Despite supply chain and infrastructure challenges in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, GSA Region 2 awarded 99 percent of its immediate repair and operations contracts to small businesses with a total value over $5 million.
“I am proud of the work of the men and women at GSA...who have gone to great lengths to support this effort,” said former Acting Administrator Tim Horne in a hearing Nov. 27 before the House Committee on Appropriations’ Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee. “More work is ahead of us, but we are prepared for the long term.”
This is the first in a series of stories looking back on the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season.