A linesman works on the main power line Sept. 11, 2017, after Hurricane Irma wiped out the entire power supply to Culebra, Puerto Rico. (K.C. Wilsey/FEMA)

PERSPECTIVE: Get Innovative to Keep Infrastructure Afloat in Crisis

As part of HSToday’s commitment to share ideas and insights on the future of the homeland security community, here is Part 6 of HSToday Editor at Large Rich Cooper’s take on what comes after FEMA Administrator Brock Long said the system is broken. (Read Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5.)

Improving Energy, Water and Communications Infrastructure Reliability:  As discussions of new investments in infrastructure projects begin to pick up within the Trump administration and Congress, there is considerable insight that FEMA and the entire emergency management community can provide to create a far more resilient and reliable infrastructure that can supply us with safer and more accessible power, water and communications services.

Regardless if it is Mother Nature who destroys it or it’s an accident, gross negligence, wear and tear, or an act of terror that causes infrastructure to become inoperable, when power, water and communications infrastructure collapse no community is sustainable or secure for the short or long term.

FEMA and emergency managers can and should be the forensic scientists to advise such future infrastructure investments for emergencies, as well as non-emergency operations. They know from firsthand experience what has held up during emergencies and that which has failed. They also can help the community and its taxpaying citizens understand how those investments can support them on the “bad days” when infrastructures are put through their toughest tests.

There is no better living case study of infrastructure challenges than what is happening in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Significant portions of the territory’s population have moved to the U.S. mainland because the island that was once a paradise home has become unsustainable. The power grid they possessed, which was already out of date and feeble before the hurricane came ashore, is having to be entirely rebuilt. The same holds true for its water and communications infrastructures. They, too, cannot support those who remain on the island in any reasonable or sustainable way to build an effective and economically stronger future.

Unfortunately for too many Americans, Puerto Rico is an issue and condition that is out of sight and out of mind. Being just over a thousand miles off the coast of Miami will do that, but imagine if a comparable-sized geographic area on the U.S. mainland (e.g. Connecticut) had similar and less-than-ideal operating conditions.

Can you imagine the public protest and pressure of those conditions if that region of the U.S. could not support itself without FEMA as well as Department of Defense assistance? Americans were angry enough at the poor federal response to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. Their fury would be multiple times over if a major American metropolis such as New York, Boston or Chicago were unable to support themselves for an extended period of time.

That’s why pushing for more reliable and innovative approaches for our infrastructure – e.g. underground lines for power and communications, solar-powered batteries and other alternative energy sources to energize the grid, greater use of satellite communications, etc. – helps offer reasonable and, in some cases, far more cost-effective alternatives than just replacing what had been destroyed with legacy and institutional approaches and parts.

FEMA has always sought ways to collaboratively work with its state and local partners to restore a community, but it also needs to have more nimble processes to allow new approaches and technologies to be demonstrated and deployed to get recovery underway faster. We are in a remarkable age of disruptive technologies that do things differently than before. As such, FEMA and its emergency management partners have to have ways to include those new approaches whenever and wherever possible.

For example, Elon Musk’s willingness to deploy his Tesla solar batteries into power-starved Puerto Rico may seem like an advertising gimmick to some, but if they can provide the power needed to put hospitals, schools, and businesses back in operation it’s worth doing. Especially when restoring old legacy infrastructure systems can cost even more in time, resources and patience – items that are always in short supply.

If there are companies like Musk’s Tesla willing to step onto the public stage to put forward a new solution (with all of the public risks to its reputation), then let’s find a way to allow them to do it. If it fails, we then know better and the community and company takes its lessons learned and moves onto something else. But if it works, think of how much faster a recovery can occur, all while enabling a new innovation to bring about a better day in the worst of environments.

Concluding thoughts

It takes a lot of courage to tell a team, a community and an organization, “We’re not where we need to be to be really successful.” A number of elected and appointed leaders will often go out of their way to point out the shortcomings of their predecessors and declare they alone have the wisdom and foresight to fix things. I don’t for an instant believe that is what Brock Long was saying when he shared he “wants everyone to understand three fundamental truths:

  1. FEMA is broke.
  2. The system is broken.
  3. If this is the new normal, Americans can’t rely on a federal cavalry when disaster strikes. They will have to take care of themselves.”

Rather, he’s reinforcing the vision that DHS’s first Secretary, Tom Ridge, sought to instill when he took over the department when it started in 2003. To any audience he would address as the then-DHS secretary, or one he would address later as a “former,” Ridge talked about the “national” mission that was not all about the department and its federal components and government partners looking to secure the homeland. Rather it was about all of us – as citizens, neighbors, community members and so forth, along with the department, its components and other partners doing our part to secure the homeland right.

It was not about “some of us” doing the job; it was about “all of us” taking part in the responsibilities of executing the mission.

Administrator Long’s courage to call that out and draw attention to what the future of FEMA and the emergency management community need to be is worthy of applause. FEMA and the emergency management community cannot do it alone and anyone who wants to put all of those responsibilities into one organizational box is setting the organization, and its constituencies, up for failure.

That’s not what Long or anyone wants but he’s challenged us to self-evaluate our own national and personal preparedness and resilience, as well as our own ability to help prepare for threats and mitigate risks in all forms.

Brock Long has started a conversation that’s worthy of having. It will be telling to see who has the courage and willingness to thoughtfully and constructively join him in that discussion.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@GTSCoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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