On Sept. 16, 2017, the National Weather Service classified Hurricane Maria as a Category 4 storm, and federal agencies began deploying resources and preparing to deal with its after-effects as it barreled toward Puerto Rico.
It was at the Department of Veterans Affairs operations center in Washington, D.C., that Donald Loren, then the assistant secretary for Operations, Security and Preparedness, watched the storm move on big-screen televisions and directed staff and resources to aid in one of the costliest natural disasters in history.
“You cannot approach these type of things [natural disasters] with an after-the-fact attitude toward emergency preparedness and response,” Loren told HSToday in an exclusive interview. “OK, so there is no after-the-fact. Each disaster, be it natural or man-made, has its own characteristics. Then, depending upon where in the country it occurs, has its own characteristics. And the reality is the ability to deal with the actual catastrophe and the implications of where it occurs and who you’re dealing with gives you lots of opportunity to choose from different columns in the menu and put things together and able to address it.”
The storm slammed the U.S. territory on Sept. 20. The estimated recovery costs for the disaster is $139 billion.
The VA is the largest employer in Puerto Rico, providing jobs for more than 4,000 employees. Loren ordered that they be given gas for their cars and had meals to take home during the storm. The VA hospital facility in San Juan operated under generator power and was staffed by 800 employees who saw to the needs of 338 inpatients and walk-in patients.
“I personally thought we did a good job,” Loren said. “And we brought in our mobile units, we brought in field kitchens, we served something in the vicinity of 110,000 meals. … So, we fed our employees and their families at $3 a meal when there was no electricity to cook, no grocery stores open and there was no transportation. There were no grocery stores open and no electricity to operate cash registers. By taking care of over 4,000 employees and their families, we were able to ensure the ability for them to respond and provide the medical services and the cemetery services. Our cemetery in Puerto Rico was the only cemetery able to continue burial operations for quite some time during and after Hurricane Maria.”
Loren also hired barges in Jacksonville, Fla., to transport additional emergency generators, medical supplies and food supplies to mobile VA medical units, particularly in the city of Ponce, which was severely hit. The clinic suffered a significant mold infestation, Loren said, and in addition to flooding, storm damage and power loss, the VA medical crews worked to fill the needs of both the veteran and civilian communities.
An Emergency Veteran
Hurricane Maria was far from Loren’s first or last natural disaster. The former U.S. Navy rear admiral has served the U.S. government for 42 years. He was raised in Massapequa, N.Y., by a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, and he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1974. He would spend 31 years in the military, and his military credits include tours as the commander of a guided missile frigate and a destroyer squadron, staff officer in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations, staff officer with U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, and on the Joint Staff, and with the office of the secretary of Defense.
In 2007, Loren was appointed as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for homeland security integration, where he coordinated DoD’s strategic planning and policy development, capability and resource assessment, strategic communications, congressional activities and educational issues related to homeland security and emergency response.
Loren left the administration with the inauguration of President Obama and turned to the private sector, where he worked as an advisor to government consultants. He was president and CEO of Old Dominion Strategies, LLC, from 2012 until 2017, until the Trump administration named him as the VA assistant secretary for Operations, Security and Preparedness — a position he held for just over a year until his position was eliminated in a departmental reorganization last September.
“Whatever the good Lord points me to is what I’ll do,” said Loren.
Loren lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Maureen, a retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel, and the couple have a 19-year-old son who is attending the Virginia Military Institute.
When queried about his extensive career, Loren responded, “Have you heard of ‘the dash?’ Not the bus system. Let’s use a hypothetical date, OK? Let’s say Don Loren lived from 1952-2052. See, your entire life is summed up in the dash — what you did, who you are, how much money you made and whatever. At the end of the day, that represents all that stuff. It’s a blank. So, sort out in life what makes a difference, work on that and all the other stuff is irrelevant. Helping others, making sure people are safe, being decent, treating other people well. That doesn’t mean you’re not demanding and you don’t require people to do what they have to do, but you can be nice about it.”
Responding to Puerto Rico
Loren waited until the storm passed to travel to Puerto Rico. His primary mission throughout the emergency was to ensure the stability of the VA hospital facility in San Juan and VA support to the federal response effort.
Puerto Rico is home to an estimated 83,000 veterans out of a population of 3.3 million. Loren had to ensure the continual operation of VA facilities, that they were supplied and had the ability to provide routine medical care and other services, including dialysis for patients and treatment for veterans with spinal injuries — regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
“I am not generally 100 percent supportive of flying immediately to the site of the hurricane, because you’re going to be out of communications with everybody else, and getting in and out maybe difficult. So, I waited until the storm passed to send my principal deputy to Puerto Rico. And then within a week I went to Puerto Rico as well,” said Loren, adding that he was in the territory for a week. “There were 60 some-odd hospitals in Puerto Rico, and only one hospital remained up and running without interruption, and that was the VA hospital, for several reasons. As a federally built facility we were built to hurricane-force standards. Most of the hospitals are not built to that standard. We had multiple emergency generators, multiple fuel storage capabilities, significant supplies on-hand and a very large force to be able to attend to the needs of the [veteran and civilian populations]. And so, in addition to remaining up and running, we then turned our clinics in the out regions of Puerto Rico into community care.”
Loren arrived on the ground in San Juan to find the familiar signs of devastation: no power, food and water concerns, and ongoing route clearance issues.
Loren said that public-private partnerships are crucial in mitigating the effects of future storms on vulnerable populations. Other issues, such as improving coordination with local and federal authorities, remain perpetual challenges during and in the wake of such an emergency.
“Why am I moving in water-making ships and water buffaloes and barges and expensive military people? Why don’t we have in-place contracts so that, if we need it, everybody’s got a plastic bottle of water?” Loren said. “Walmart has a 10 times better distribution capability, and so if Walmart just sends 2 million bottles of water from their normal distribution here down to the scene, we can warehouse some and distribute them.”
“…We need public-private partnerships in place, executable contracts, and those are things we have learned. Those are things that we have employed and improve upon every day. That’s a very, very important piece of this, but you have to mature and grow through all of that. It’s much easier for Walmart to distribute water than me to make it on a ship, pump it to a barge, get it into the shore and distributed to people coming with their empty milk jugs.”
Getting what you want in the federal emergency preparedness field means knowing who to talk to, Loren said. That means he needed to have positive relationships with his counterparts.
“Interpersonal relationships are critical. My former colleagues at DoD and HHS and the White House, we all know each other, we all worked together. We were all able to pick up the phone and call each other to talk about what we needed,” said Loren. “I think the more we learn and progress from an agency to whole-of-government to whole-of-nation approach to these things, that people that have skill sets that are used to doing business and bringing all those things together will be more in demand.”
After three straight aggressive hurricane seasons, Loren stressed that “we’d be foolish if we did not make sure that we have the capabilities and the structures associated with how to deal with the changing climate and its effects on natural occurrences.”
He recalled a three-year period during his naval career when he lived in Italy. “I used to shake my head when you saw, despite violation of local Italian authority ordinances, people building communities and houses at the base of Mount Vesuvius,” he said. “One, know your history; two… do you really think it’s wise to build your community there? I don’t know. But we have to make sure we are prepared, especially in what used to be my line of work, to make sure we can deal with it. And we can mitigate whatever is changing and occurring, and we can prevent the loss of life and, in fact, preserve our way of life.”