Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Turn the Lights Out When You Leave

I'm home.

Still trying to figure out which end is up.  I arrived a little over a week ago, late on Thursday night, weary and shell-shocked.  Eight days later, I am just starting to get my feet under me.

People want to know how the trip was.  Whether it was fun.  How I liked it. Where my suntan is.


I'll sum it up, just to make it clear.

My deployment was brutal, but important.  Given the different permutations available, I will take that combination, every single time.  Gimme important battles to fight with real consequences, and let me see how I can help.  The work was hard, and the reasons were complex, and there were battles raging on all sides.  Some of them were overblown (including an honest-do-goodness "fake news" story - see below).  Some of them were unnecessary.  And then some of them were

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Unfinished Business

November 19, 2017, 2330 hrs: Crorey arrives in Puerto Rico. 

A couple of days before my arrival, I saw this video that inspired me:


...and that video set the tone for expectations for the two-month effort.  It is true.  I fully expected to hear those cheers regularly.  I mean, I was not going to be the field guy, but that cheer when the lights went on was both the goal and the expectation:  I envisioned videos every few days from the field, as people get charged up, leaving me charged up as well.  I was going to be building relationships, fighting to get funding to get the mission completed, working to do the job. Bringing lights to the people of Puerto Rico.

Fifty eight days later, I am two days away from leaving a situation that is not yet fixed.  I am leaving behind work that still needs to be done, and it is work that needs to be done in areas I thought would be complete by now.

The work is not complete.  I am leaving without having done what I thought I would be able to do.  There should be a feeling of satisfaction that accompanies the completion of a mission, a sign that announces MISSION COMPLETE!

Or, at the least, there should be a profound sense of accomplishment associated with furthering the mission.  I am just a cog, but I am a cog in a significant effort.  And I am adding my weight to the pushing.

I am struggling to get my arms wrapped around what I am feeling right now.  It is not disappointment in my effort or in the mission.  The situation needed our attention, and it needed that attention right away.  We came in and pushed as hard as we possibly could.  It was, and is, a good mission.  It has been an incredible effort.

It also has nothing to do with the people working the mission.  Everyone I met - with one notable exception (adult beverage conversation) represented the best of what the Corps of Engineers brings to the work it does.  They are dedicated.  They work hard. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Changing the Mission

"In 8.3 miles, take a left on De Diego Boulevard."  The voice on the navigator's iPhone counted down as we got closer to our destination.  "In 7.5 miles, take a left on De Diego...."

Ugh.  I hate the talking map.

But regardless of my feelings about it, the voiced gps is a critical tool here.  So today we were listening to some disembodied voice tell us where to go, and we followed it blindly.

In between instructions, I thought of how our mission has changed since we first came.  When we first arrived in Puerto Rico, we were desperate to get people and material onto the island (well, we are still desperate to get materials here).

Empty trucks parked on the yard in the middle of the day.
But we are now focusing on a whole new set of variables.  How do we increase productivity on a time-and-materials contract?  How do we ensure that the lines are assigned to crews who can complete them fastest?  How do we acquire access to staging areas where we can put stuff where it is easy to get to?  When do we stop using the generator that we put in to power up a community down south?

As we answer those questions, our focus changes.

It really isn't all that different from listening to the disembodied New Zealand female voice defining the road I am going down.  She can't really see where we are going, she doesn't know what the traffic is like (I know, current technology is getting there, but still), and she doesn't know what tree has fallen across the road and is going to make us turn around and find another route.

She also gets stuff wrong.  Sometimes she sends me down a one-way street the wrong way - which happened.  Or tells me to take a left, which would take me across a four-foot concrete barrier and across oncoming traffic on a six-lane highway - which also happened.  Or takes me to a gated community that is ALSO named Calle 2....

But she knows where the roads are.  And she gives you a good general map of the landscape.  And she can help navigate the way there.  She can even re-calibrate your path, depending on which gated community you accidentally turned into.

Our plan of action - every plan of action - is the same way.  We have a lot of information that we use to come up with the path we will follow.  And there is a certain point at which it is better to commit to the path you are on, despite a little bit of traffic (we got stuck for 45 minutes in a choke-point on the road today, because we weren't willing to find a new path).  Until there is clear benefit for changing the path, we stay the course.

But if we are clinging to the words on the page - the road map we agreed to at the beginning - we are sending bad money after good.  Some times, we have better, more recent information than we knew when the plan was established.  When that happens, our path changes.

"In 4 miles, take a left on De Diego...."

We are further down the road.  We are no longer where we started, and slavishly following the original instructions is stupid.

We took a left on De Diego.  We got to the yard.  We counted trucks and talked to the yard manager.  We got information about how desperate they were for the materials.  We heard about their concerns about salvaging the material from old poles.  We took down names.  We got a feel for the frustration they feel, about the safety concerns (a guy fell 50' from a tower last week - and survived) and about what they need to do their work well.  Some were defensive.  Some were challenging us.  Some evaded.

All of them are here to fix the problems.  All are going down the path with us.  And trying to bring the lights back on.  Suggesting different paths, arguing with us about how to light up the island.

They are like us.  They are here.

Estamos aqui.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

What is Wrong?

This situation is a mess.  Despite everyone's hard work and great intentions, the situation here is just rough.

We have so many problems, that I have to number them.

1.  When the Corps of Engineers came down to Puerto Rico, we were tasked with doing one thing.  Eventually, the work we were doing was morphed into something else. And then something else.  First we were restoring the grid (ESTAMOS AQUI!).  Then we were restoring all power to everyone (YAY!).  Then we were restoring some power, and working with the local utility to bring the rest back (POWER TO THE PEOPLE!).  It is difficult, however, to capture the flag if your end zones keep changing.

We are working in partnership with FEMA, who is providing the funds, and with the local electric board.  PREPA is a public utility, they are flat broke (having declared bankruptcy in July of last year), they have a system that is hopelessly outdated, and are almost entirely made up of people who replaced their predecessors, many of whom got fired after the storm.

The media reported on something this week that demonstrates a serious issue.  There is a warehouse that was under the control of the local public utilities company.  Apparently, there was a bit of consternation about the fact that they were not coming forward with the stuff that was stockpiled there.  The lead from FEMA gave the strong impression in a stakeholders meeting that she was not above using Federal Marshals to storm the place and turn the materials over to the contractors doing the work.

The story here gets a little muddy.  But the best I can figure out, the warehouse was filled with materials from dead projects.  You know, like that 1958 Ford Fairlane that you have in your garage, but have never been able to complete?  The parts are stacked up, but you have completely given up on getting it running again.

And yet, if someone asked you for parts for fixing cars, you might not think of your Fairlane.

That is kind of what the current situation was with the power company.  They had dead project stuff.  Not well catalogued.  Not usable for regular maintenance.  Not on anybody's radar.  There is also suggestions that the information about what was there had been made available, but that the right people did not know about it.  (The communication issues following a disaster is a whole different blog entry).

Monday, January 8, 2018

Just an old fashioned love song

In 1997, I met a woman who would change my life forever.

I was interviewing for grad school at Tulane University, and was about to walk into my first  interview.  Interviews, in case you were not aware, are not my forte.

This woman, who called herself Kathleen Trujillo, talked me down off the ledge.  She let me crack jokes until I calmed down.  She told me about the professor I was interviewing with.  She gave me insight into his style (...Let the pause play out.  He doesn't respond quickly.)   She was smart.  She was kind.  She was helpful.

And, as all of you know, she was gorgeous, with the biggest, brightest blue eyes I had ever seen.

Later that year, I came to Tulane, and eventually made the smart move of having my mom propose to her.  (She said yes to mom, after turning me down.)  The wedding was more fun than anyone could have expected, and the decorations we had at the museum at the Middle American Research Institute - set in the 1920s - was the backdrop for the portrait of the exquisite flapper I had married.  And, of course, Monroe Edmonson providing the a capella highlight to the wedding, and the brilliant string trio of Mary Laurel, Katie, and Andrew Lawton all gave me the music to make it perfect.

That was eighteen years ago, today.

Yeah, that is right.  Our marriage could vote.

This amazing woman has stood by my side, pushed me, suggested, nudged, let me grow, and has, impossibly, blossomed into an even more beautiful woman than the one who agreed to marry me. She has endured deployments and absences and even endured a forgotten birthday (but only one....)

I could not imagine putting up with me for a week, let alone 18 years.  But she has, and has done so with a grace that I cannot even begin to describe.  She is my partner, my translator (always necessary when I am in a public setting), my travel partner, my co-conspirator, and my friend.

Changing my life, every day, Kathe Lawton is the light of my life.

Friday, January 5, 2018

So what do you do? Emergency Management Edition

If you are a traffic cop, and you can't come up with an answer when someone asks you what you do, then there are going to be some collisions until you get it figured out.

I arrived in Puerto Rico on 19 November, back-filling for a program manager who was rotating back home.  And every day, someone different asked me what it was that I did.

Response, Day 1:  I am the new Dave Jenkins.
Response, Day 2:  I am the new Dave Jenkins.
Response, Day 3: I am the new Dave Jenkins.
Response, Day 4: I am the new Dave Jenkins.
Response, Day 5: Um..... I am not so sure.

A week into my work, I stopped trying to figure out what my predecessor had done the week before, because it obviously had no bearing on what was being done today.  For that matter, whatever it was that I did yesterday had no bearing on what I was doing today.

Under normal conditions in Vicksburg job, I consider myself a firefighter.  As soon as the fires flare up, I run over and see if I can help put them out.  (I have even set a few fires intentionally, in order to get my projects the attention that they need.  Then I get to swoop in and put out the fire).

I also worked emergency operations as a local government liaisons following a number of disasters, and so I am familiar with how it works, and the importance of changing your focus on a moment's notice.  But even so,  the definition of what exactly I am doing here eluded me.  Program Manager sounds great, as a title.  But what does my day-to-day look like? I couldn't really answer.

I mean, shouldn't that be a red flag?

Then, three days ago, I got myself a better explanation of what I do.

Very busy slide.  Lots of info.
Every day, I read a series of reports and make updates to a single slide.  The slide is used by FEMA to discuss progress with the program.  It is both the worst thing ever for me - because it requires very minute attention to detail - and the best thing ever for me - because it involves me reading lots of reports for information that I need to understand. 

The coolest part of it is that I am seeing changes over time.  The slide shows areas that are powered.  It shows the workforce in the area dedicated to the work.  It shows the status of the material and when we can expect it (a plane full of transformers arrived yesterday).

Flying is faster but  more expensive way of getting stuff to the island.
And over the course of two months, I have gotten a sense of what changes are occurring, and I track the changes.

The slide I build gets shared around quite a bit, and is used to oversee progress on the program at a very high level. And as of three days ago, at a much lower level, too.  I received an email.

I am the local government liaison mission manager.  Our liaisons in the field are constantly getting asked about the power restoration mission.  At this time I do not get any talking point or briefing slides from this mission.  Can I please be included in any distribution of these documents so that our liaisons in the field will be knowledgeable and aware of what we are doing.  Currently they are reading things in the paper that they are not aware of and probably should be.
I appreciate your help.<

Immediately, I moved into action.  I started sharing information.  I know what it is like to be in the field, getting no information, and being asked for insight, all the while hearing from others what your agency is doing.

I shared the slide.  I shared the critical reports I had pulled the information from.  (And then asked for permission).

That same day, I received two panicky requests from the field.  Both were getting demands from officials for specific information, and were reaching for a lifeline.

I immediately reached out to a contact I had, and told them about the need.  Contact was made, information shared.  Fifteen minutes later, I get the following e-mail:

All, a direct quote from the FEMA Division Supervisor "This is perfect! Exactly what I needed!"

Guys, feedback between firefighters is rare, especially in the middle of the battle.  So for him to pass back the message meant that he had been especially desperate for the information. (Or, perhaps, he was just exceedingly polite.  A trait that burns out pretty quickly in the heat of battle).

Suddenly, I see my own position in a new light.  I am not a vaguely defined 'Program Manager'.  Or, at least, I am not only defined by that title.

I am the connector.  I am the purveyor of information.  I take packages of information,  I repackage that information, and I get it into the hands of the ones who need it.  I have elves who give me the work of their hands, and trust me to get it delivered to the right house. For all the good girls and boys.

I am freakin' Santa Claus!

A friend of mine, Danielle Tommaso, is the best I have ever seen at playing Santa Claus.  She collects information, completely repackages it in easily digestible bites, and feeds it to people who need those bites.  But even if I am less talented than she is, I do wear my own red hat, and drive my own reindeer.

And when I get to share the knowledge I develop with people who are in need...

...it is like Christmas morning. 

Estamos aqui.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Shipping the Goods

Gratuitous pic of a truck replacing
a line on a narrow street.  Photo by Kathe.
"We have scavenged all the materials we can from damaged poles and lines.  As of Tuesday, we will be out of materials to continue work on the electrical lines in the city."

The Mayor of Villalba, Puerto Rico, was talking to a group of officials from Puerto Rico Power, FEMA and the Corps.  He shared the extent of the damage done, and what remains to be done.  Today marks the 100th day since the storm hit.

Villalba, for those of you not familiar with the geography of the island, is not the most remote town in Puerto Rico.

The utilities official agreed with the mayor.  If materials were on hand, 60% of the lights in the village would already be energized.  And then everyone turned and looked at the representative from the Corps.

Arms folded.  Well?

This scene has played itself out in similar scenes all across the island.  Because of a host of logistical problems with getting stuff shipped to the island, teams from every contractor and subcontractor have taken valuable (read:expensive) time to recycle for reuse any available scrap from the lines that were destroyed.  Wire coiled and set aside.  Boxes filled with scavenged connectors and insulators and bolts.  Stacks of crossarms.

We have been struggling since right after the storm to get material where it needs to go.

We have a group of guys who we refer to as the BOM Squad.  BOM - Bill of Materials - is the physical stuff we need to do the work.  From day one, the BOM Squad has had the hardest job on the island. They are responsible for moving tens of thousands of power poles, hundreds of transmission towers, thousands of insulators, hundreds of transformers, wire, (LOTS of wire), and tons of nuts, bolts, crimps, and other stuff with exciting names like "Fuse Link 140A dsv Universal Fast" or "Cutout KVMAS 200A" - and getting it all where it needs to go.  (Fun fact: there are chainsaws in the mix, too.)

Here's the thing: If you don't have all of the pieces, then you don't connect the electricity, and you don't turn on the refrigerator.  And people fold their arms at you and stare.  Well?

The BOM Squad made their order based on very early information about what the needs were, with a lot of uncertainty in what the actual needs were.  And there have been countless bottlenecks:

Bottleneck at the manufacturing facility.  Much of the stuff we are getting in every day is stamped with a production date from last month.  That is unheard of.  We have been literally having stuff manufactured, rolled off the assembly line/out of the kiln, stamped, and immediately put on a truck.

Bottleneck at the port, where the stuff was supposed to be loaded on barges.  Eventually, we moved all of the stuff to a different port. And shipped it out from there.

Bottleneck at the port on the island.  Taking the items off the barge, putting them down in the yard, opening the containers, cataloging, counting, repacking, setting them on trucks, distributing them to the laydown yards.

Bottleneck at the warehouse.

They have been streamlining, and the process is better.  But there was no material on hand.  EVERYTHING had to be shipped.  What is worse, original estimates have changed, and items have been added.  With no change in the timeline.

And then how do you determine who gets priority for receiving the stuff?  No matter what you decide (First come/first served?  Big city first?  Industry first?), you will be charged with favoring one group over another.

'The Corps favors the contractors they hired, and are not giving material to the locals who need it.'
'The Corps is favoring one contractor over another.'
'The Corps is favoring the locals over the contractors, who cannot perform according to the contract if they don't get the stuff.'
'The Corps is favoring one region/one village/one town over another.'

Now, two months after the order was made, we are starting to see an increase in the stream of goods that are coming to the island.  Every day, we are counting containers of material, hundreds of poles, and getting more stuff into the hands of the contractors and workers who can majically turn bits of metal into electricity in the homes of those who need it. And they won't have to rely exclusively on cannibalized material to do it.

We are answering the question from the Mayor of Villalba.  We are ordering material and providing it as quickly, distributing it as widely, and helping as many people as we can.  As soon as we are told of the need for specific elements, we order them and get them in.  As they are received, we turn them over to the team needing the material.  To get them back to work.

The trickle of BOM is turning into a stream.  And soon, God willing, the stream will turn into a river.  As that happens, we can get it all into the hands of those who can bring power to the people.

Estamos aqui.

Even in Villalba.