Out of the Whirlwind is a new book by Philip J. Palin that offers a unique perspective on disaster response, resilience, and recovery. It tells the story of how pre-existing supply chains for food and fuel roared back in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic hit on Puerto Rico. The book tells this story through a combination of data, analysis, and narrative. Implications for future catastrophic events are strategically obvious and operationally challenging.
Homeland Security Today, in cooperation with publisher Rowman & Littlefield, is pleased to offer an exclusive peek into Out of the Whirlwind with a three-part series including an interview with Palin and three excerpts. Here is Part I.
ESTABAN AND MANUEL, DISTRIBUTORS (Part Two of Three)
A Grocery Warehouse
From the fifth floor Manuel can also see the rooftops of six grocery distribution centers and food manufacturers west and south of the terminal. In a roughly four-mile stretch west of the port, two important fuel terminals and most of Puerto Rico’s largest sources of food sit side-by-side.
On Monday morning, September 25, Estaban is on the roof of his warehouse checking repairs when the back-up to the toll-way quickly fills the side street in front of the warehouse freight yard. He watches briefly as the knot of traffic tightens, then he descends into the 300,000-plus square foot five-story high interior.
The leaks were not as bad as feared. Nothing like his neighbor—and competitor—who lost nearly half his roof. The solar panels seem to have added weight and anchoring. An unexpected return on that investment to reduce electrical costs – now powering most of the facility. After a long-weekend of cleaning and repairs, the majority of Estaban’s 300-some employees are now ready to load trucks.
But most of his biggest customers are not ready to receive deliveries. Sunday Estaban talked to all but two of his top-twenty customers, together totaling more than seventy percent of sales. None opened today and many do not expect to open until Wednesday, one week after landfall, or even Thursday. The bigger the business, the more complicated the business.
Still, Estaban is making deliveries. Early that Monday morning he had stood on a stack of pallets inside the dock doors.
“Good morning,” he shouts above a hundred conversations. “Welcome to the first day of Puerto Rico Rising, with your help. What more can we do for you? The lunch room will open today. I saw many of you bringing your children to our brand-new day-care. Should we keep this going after the crisis?” Applause. “I agree, having the kids here brings an extra joy.”
“I am promised the laundromat will be ready by tomorrow afternoon.” Louder applause. “Bringing dirty clothes to work is less joyful, but with so much sweat, clean clothes may clear the air.” Scattered laughter and groans. “Tell me, tell Carmen,” Estaban points to the Vice President of Human Resources, “What do you need. We need you to be ready and able to deliver our food and all that is required for Puerto Rico Rising.”
“Today, many of our customers are not yet ready for us. But we have more than 4000 customers and have not heard from most of them. So, today we are going to them. Every member of the sales team has assignments. We have emptied the cigarette vans and refilled them with packaged goods and water. This morning our direct-store-delivery team will start trying to visit everyone on their routes, find out what they need and bring back orders – food, water all that we have here.” Applause and shouts. “Even cigarettes. After Maria, I may start smoking again.”
“Please, can I have the sales and DSD teams come forward.” Nearly fifty men and women gather between the crowd and Estaban. “You will be our cavalry, our surveillance team, our James Bonds, our sentinels. You will hear what is needed, tell us, and we will be creative and flexible in doing anything possible to deliver all that we have.”
“Here is what I expect, it will be slow today and tomorrow. Wednesday the push will begin and by Friday we will be delivering more than ever before. There will be a week of delayed demand to catch up and a huge amount of hoarding. This will continue until the grid comes back, which the Governor says will be by Christmas. If he is right the celebration will continue with super high demand into Three Kings and the eight days beyond.”
“Until communications systems are back online, discovering and delivering what is needed will take all the creativity and flexibility we can muster. We do not usually deliver SPAM and SpaghettiOs in the cigarette vans. Not nearly the usual margins. We will have many more custom partial pallets. Much more back-breaking, time-consuming work on the dock. Accounts receivable will be crazy. But your contribution has never been more important. Never have so many depended on you.”
“Thank you for your commitment. On Friday morning so many of you were already here. More arrived Saturday and yesterday. Now look at us. We are ready to feed our neighbors. We are ready to do our part in Puerto Rico Rising.”
He raises an open palm signaling confidence. More applause, more shouts, Estaban steps down from the pallets and shakes hands with each DSD driver and sales person. As Estaban departs the crowd for his office on the second floor, the procurement manager joins him on the stairs.
“Regarding that three-month demand surge, I’m not getting boarding numbers for orders out of Jacksonville,” she says.
“Tell me more.”
“Typically, when we have a container ready the carrier provides a boarding number that tells us roughly when our load will be put on the barge. Our orders are being received, but no boarding number. I expect carriers are keeping their options open.”
“No more first come, first serve. Someone setting priorities?”
As they walk past the pop-up daycare, the sharp blast of a trumpet causes both executives to flinch, then laugh.
“That’s my guess. Not enough space to push all that’s being pulled.”
“At least not out of JAX… So, for product shipped from the mainland, keep our orders in the queue, nag as necessary. But if you reach double historical thresholds, pull back. Let’s look for comparable products from outside the Jones Act noose. What can we get from Canada, Mexico, Spain or any non-US lanes? Can shippers give us delivery commitments? Perfect opportunity for low-volume international SKUs to claim market share. Worth pushing, might even be true. What can we flex from non-US suppliers to counter congestion and delay in mainland channels? Can we get an actual flow heading our way? See what you can find. Then let’s place right-sized, right-timed non-US orders.”
In the second-floor hallway Estaban is stopped by the logistics coordinator. “Raffie says the port is a black hole. Hacienda still has it basically locked-down. Nothing but FEMA freight getting out. Problem is, he needs to give his guys some work or he’ll lose them.”
“I want trucks making deliveries too, but I don’t want to burn precious diesel sending them into a black hole,” Estaban answers. “We should have a better idea once the sales team and DSD comes back tonight. I’m fairly sure we will be shipping to Econo, Pueblo, SuperMax and other big boys by Wednesday or Thursday. What do we need to do to fill the gap?”
“I don’t know. I’ll ask.”
“What I need from you and Raffie is a specific date when our 6000 gallons of diesel is gone, if my estimate of three-times-normal volume starts on Wednesday, that’s a problem I need to solve early. Carmen is pushing to provide fuel to employees. What are the trade-offs?”
Estaban’s smartphone buzzes. It’s a customer he did not contact on Sunday. “Angel, thank God, so good to hear from you. How are you?”
“Parked beside Route One north of Caguas,” Angel answers. “Surrounded by a congregation of three-hundred praying aloud to a working tower.” It is not a clear signal. “But, anyway, we are open my friend. Eight of nine stores are selling, and we want to see your trucks. Humacao is under water. All the rest are wounded but working, even Yabucoa.”
“I’m amazed. When I couldn’t raise you yesterday, I assumed the worst.”
“Me too. But we’re open and crowds are crazy. You got any ice…”
Before Estaban can answer no, the line goes dead. He tries calling back. Overloaded.