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. Read Part I and Part II.
ESTABAN AND MANUEL, DISTRIBUTORS (Part Three of Three)
Rene is one of the cavalry. His horse is a less-than-one-year-old Ford cargo van. He is its first driver. This is his first full-time job and he has been given a low risk route on the periphery of southern Bayamon, Toa Alta, and into the mountains. He has several dozen low-volume customers most of whom he sees barely once each month, mostly selling five leading brands of cigarettes, but also watching for any lack of company product on the shelves. Not exactly the job he had in mind when he graduated university. But it is a start with a good company. He was a marketing intern when his boss recommended him.
For this reconnaissance mission Rene dispenses with his usual circuitous drive staying close to the four-lanes of 167 and the 5. This is where most of his slightly bigger customers are clustered.
He wonders if the bridge crossing the Rio Plata has survived. Two of its four lanes have been closed since it was discovered to have been badly built. If he can cross the bridge, he will go as far as the cash-and-carry in Naranjito.
By his third stop Rene has unloaded all the canned goods and water. He considers going back to the centro for more, but really wants to try for Naranjito. He takes orders from six more customers before turning onto the 5 and descending toward the river. The bridge still stands, spanning twenty-one hundred feet, suspended by 96 cables fanning from two diamond-shaped towers. It is a gorgeous structure compromised by substandard concrete and an “irregular gradient” producing dangerous vibrations if there is too much weight and speed.
Rene visits three more customers before reaching Naranjito town on the steep slopes above and along the usually narrow Guadiana River. The density of structures protruding from the hills, now denuded of leaves, surprises him. The stream curling through the narrow valley has returned to its typical two feet of flow. Just five days before it was 17 feet high, discharging more than 10,000 cubic feet per second. The homes and shops once gathered along its muddy banks are splintered, buried, or absent. Driving his now empty cargo van into this implosion of suffering prompts a surge of emotion Rene had not previously allowed.
Fortunately, the main road and the cash-and-carry are well above remnants of flooding. The store is open. Pushing through the crowd of customers, Rene looks for the owner or a manager. The office is locked. Only busy cashiers and three cops at the front end. He finally finds both men and an electrician at the rear of the building nursing one of four generators.
“Rene! Surprised to see you. So, the roads are clear to Bayamon!”
“Clear enough, Gabe, clear enough,” Rene shakes each grocer’s hand. The electrician remains crouched and peering into the moribund machine.
“What did you bring me. Something more than cigs I hope.”
“Not even that, I was empty before crossing the Plata. But I want to get you a truck tomorrow, now I know you’re open.”
“Two trucks,” the manager injects. “Customers are like locusts, eating everything.”
“Give Rene our priorities. See how much he can get us tomorrow. How often can you get us trucks?” the sixty-something owner asks the beardless kid from San Juan.
“I don’t know,” Rene says looking down. “Estaban sent us to find out what was open, where we can go. But I have an idea that might increase your chances.”
“I’m all ears.”
“I’ve got forty customers scattered between here, Corozal Comerio, places trucks will not go anytime soon. How about if we load you up and you hand off to these guys, if they can get to you?”
“I’m cash-and-carry. That’s what I do.”
“Yes, but we deliver these pallets without charging you, reserved for our smaller clients, labeled for each, and charge them directly. If you take their order… I’ll give you my commission.”
“I get it. You’re making me a cross-dock. Good idea…” The older man pauses, seeming to consider the piles of debris pushed up the hill behind his store. The generator growls briefly, then stops. The electrician curses. “So, you keep your commission,” Gabe replies slowly. “But tell Estaban if he gets me at least one truck five days a week, I’ll buy him dinner. If I take orders for your customers, he owes me the best brandy you guys carry.”
Rene shakes hands with the older man, not sure if he can pull off this brainstorm when he gets back to the centro. He was expecting—dreading—more of a negotiation. Rene is sweating so much that after their handshake Gabe wipes his hand on his already damp shirt.
The next day, Tuesday, two trucks are unloading at the Naranjito cash-and-carry. Wednesday most of Estaban’s customers are ready to reopen. Thursday Estaban ships seven times normal volume. The outbound flow continues at roughly three times year-prior until mid-December.
By the middle of October fuel is flowing where needed. With sufficient fuel, emergency generators produce electricity and trucks with truckers deliver. Estaban can focus on sourcing, shipping, and resupply.