How to Bridge the Gap Between Federal and Local Policy with George Laws Garcia
“After every disaster, communities need to be rebuilt, but it shouldn’t just be the powers from above that decide how that happens. There should be a participatory process for people to engage and reassess.” –George Laws Garcia
What happens when politics enters into the disaster space? It depends on the community you ask, and for Puerto Rico, it’s an unfair battle. For 123 years, Puerto Rico has been a territory of the US, yet is treated differently in Congress. This presents a huge challenge during a disaster. When Hurricane Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, they had to rely on other states to do the advocacy work since they do not have representatives in the Congress. Puerto Rico has faced and continues to face injustices in the system, but they are learning how to navigate politics and disaster as a community.
Led by George Laws Garcia, Mirsonia Group helps their clients develop innovative and effective public policies. George is a bold advocate for Puerto Rico, especially in terms of legislative matters. In this episode, George helps us navigate political aspects of managing natural disaster emergencies. Jennifer and George recount their own stories and observations about the government and federal laws, leadership during a disaster, biases and inequalities in resource allocation and action, flexibility in rebuilding, boosting resiliency and capacity, and investing in sustainable recovery. Be the author of your own resiliency story. Stay tuned until the end to hear three realistic and practical ways we can do to bridge the gap in public policies and disaster recovery.
- 02:47: In Between and Disasters
- 09:05: Puerto Rico and The Legacy of Colonialism
- 14:13: At the Center of 2 Devastating Hurricanes
- 21:30: Unaddressed Disaster Impacts
- 26:53:The Deficiency in Government and Leadership
- 35:44: Behind the Scene: Biases and Unjust Framing
- 42:44:Toward Full Reconstruction
- 50:18: Rebuild Sustainably
13:39: “It’s so important that we not only execute a proper disaster recovery, but that we also address the underlying issue of legal and constitutional inequality because of the colonial territory status.” –George Laws Garcia
21:34: “The psychological, emotional, and even spiritual impact is often unaddressed. But it does take you to the edges of your human capacity to withstand. If you’re able to process and manage, you can end up with a much stronger sense of resiliency and capacity.” –George Laws Garcia
23:02: “We do have the capacity to come together as communities to address our own needs, sometimes in ways that are more powerful than what the government can do for us.” –George Laws Garcia
23:37: “The community was the cavalry.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
25:26: “After every disaster, communities need to be rebuilt, but it shouldn’t just be the powers from above that decide how that happens. There should be a participatory process for people to engage and reassess.” –George Laws Garcia
30:51: “People want to have their voices heard. And oftentimes, you’ll get feedback from people that have ideas that you won’t hear inside of a government office or coming from a federal agency.” –George Laws Garcia
44:39: “You don’t think about the state government property registry as being a disaster issue; it’s boring but it’s there. It’s a reality.” –George Laws Garcia
49:19: “It’s great to rebuild, but we actually need to fortify so that in the future, we have a greater resilience capacity and mitigate against future disasters.” –George Laws Garcia
51:19: “This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. There’s a lot of things to get done, but for recovery to happen, you need to sustain the effort over a long period of time. If you’re burning the candle on both ends, there’s only so long you can do that before you burn out.” –George Laws Garcia
Meet George Laws Garcia:
The Mirsonia Group is led by George Laws Garcia. With 15 years of experience in public policy and intergovernmental affairs, George has worked for and advised Governors, Members of Congress, Federal Agencies and National Non-Profit Organizations on a broad range of issues, strategies and programs.
George most recently served as the Interim Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), the Washington D.C. office of the Governor of Puerto Rico. In this role he oversaw the agency and lead its federal policy and advocacy efforts before the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government.
He previously served in the U.S. Department of Commerce working with Members of Congress as well as state and local elected officials to promote the growth of minority businesses and minority entrepreneurship.
Prior to that, he worked as policy advisor to Congressman Pedro Pierluisi in the U.S. House of Representatives, and before that as legislative advisor to former Governor of Puerto Rico, Hon. Luis Fortuño.
He began his career in Washington working with various Latino non-profit advocacy and community service organizations in both a professional and volunteer role. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and holds a Master’s degree from American University’s School of International Service. He is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the How To Disaster Podcast, recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson and I’m the CEO of After The Fire. On today’s episode, I’m happy to welcome George Laws Garcia from Mirsonia Group. Mirsonia Group is an advocacy group that helps clients develop public policy that is innovative and effective. George has a wealth of experience managing natural disaster emergencies from hurricane Irma, Maria in 2017. And we’re excited to bring his knowledge to you. I invited George to be on the podcast today because I was interested in his work in particular with Puerto Rico, and how to serve and advocate for that community. In the midst of the worst disaster in recorded history. Hurricane Maria was also during a very difficult time politically for Puerto Rico and politics entered into the space of disaster. So we’re going to talk about that today, how to work around that. And he’s going to bring you his incredible experience and knowledge being a fierce advocate for Puerto Rico.
So welcome to the podcast, George Laws Garcia.
George Laws Garcia: Thank you so much, Jennifer, for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I wanted to have you on for a lot of reasons. You have a very interesting background navigating politics and disaster. I’m hoping that you can start off by telling us about your current position, and then I’m going to ask you about your disaster story.
George Laws Garcia: Excellent. Well, thank you so much. Currently, I am the founder and principal of Mirsonia Group. We are a boutique lobbying public policy and consulting firm. And we work on a variety of different issues related to federal policy, but a lot of it is connected to both disaster issues and Puerto Rico because of my background. And my background, specifically, I’ve had over 15 years in public service. I’ve worked for national nonprofit organizations focused on federal public policy issues between Puerto Rico and the Federal Government. I’ve been an advisor to two governors of Puerto Rico, Washington DC office that interfaces with the federal executive branch as well as with Congress. And I worked for the US Department of Commerce. I also advised Puerto Rico’s members of Congress for about four years.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So Puerto Rico sits in a very unique position. Can you talk to us about your relationship with Puerto Rico?
George Laws Garcia: Definitely. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. We’ve been a territory for 123 years. And what that means is that for a lot of different issues, Puerto Rico is treated differently than the states, even though the people of Puerto Rico are natural born United States citizens. So we’re under the US flag, we follow US federal law, we’re subject to it. But at the same time, we don’t have full voting or presentation in Congress. And Congress does treat us unequally in a number of different federal laws and programs. And that is something that became incredibly important in the post disaster period after hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 when I was in public service, because your members of Congress are your front line of defense to basically articulate the needs of the jurisdiction in front of the federal officials that are allocating the resources for post disaster recovery and reconstruction.
And in the case of Puerto Rico, we have no real presentation in the US Senate. So we had to depend on senators from other states to do that advocacy work on our behalf. And we only have one non voting member of Congress, which is called a Resident Commissioner, as opposed to having a delegation of four or five representatives, which is what a state with a population like Puerto Rico normally has. So it creates a huge, huge challenge when it comes to actually making sure that the needs of 3.2 million United States citizens, the overwhelming majority, which are Hispanic are actually properly attended to by Congress. And then on top of it all, we don’t get to vote for the President of the United States. So the federal executive doesn’t have as much focus on Puerto Rico as it would when a disaster happens in another state where there are a lot of electoral college votes like Florida or Texas, which were also hit by major disasters that very same year of 2017 and received significantly different treatment than Puerto Rico.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And politics really did enter into, and we saw it because our money was actually coupled at one point from our 2017 disaster, which happened about a month after yours. So some of our federal dollars are actually coupled with Puerto Rico. And because the issue of Puerto Rico is so political, and I want to get a little more into that, it meant that we actually had to get our funds uncoupled because yours were being held hostage. So even though we were happy to have our money, we were also like, that seems entirely wrong. I’ve sat with Kevin McCarthy when he said, politics has no place in disaster. So I would really like to see that play out for both parties in the executive office as well. But I’m hearing more about more support for Puerto Rico becoming a state. Where is that in the process right now? And what are the barriers to?
George Laws Garcia: Yeah, no, definitely. Puerto Rico has been part of the United States for 123 years, we’ve fought in the US military since World War l. We’ve been to countless countries, there’s about $70 billion worth of interstate commerce between Puerto Rico and the state. So our economies are fundamentally intertwined. And nowadays, there’s 3.2 million Puerto Ricans on the Island, but there’s 5 million Puerto Ricans living stateside. In pretty much every state across the country, there is a population of Puerto Ricans. So what’s happening is that it has become absolutely clear that the current territory status is unable to provide for Puerto Rico’s continued economic development and progress. And as a result, in large part of the unequal treatment of Puerto Rico under federal laws and programs, Puerto Rico accumulated a huge amount of debt trying to kind of keep up with the standard of living in other states, and we ended up in federal bankruptcy. And as opposed to Congress actually addressing the root cause of the issue, which is territorial inequality, lack of representation and a lack of opportunity to actually have a voting voice in the Congress that would make sure that Puerto Rico’s priorities are included and addressed. When the federal government legislated, they passed a law that allowed us to do debt restructuring, which is called PROMESA. But it imposed a fiscal oversight board over Puerto Rico or seven unaccountable members basically are able to dictate Puerto Rico’s fiscal policy.
So Puerto Rico actually retro seated in terms of the amount of self government that it had. And all of that happened in 2016. So when the hurricane hit, it actually had a direct impact on our recovery process because the federal government was not just dealing with the government of Puerto Rico. But on top of that, you had to negotiate with the Oversight Board, which then had to redo a fiscal plan and figure out where the resources for the recovery could be allocated in a way that made sense with our fiscal recovery. So all of that has made it absolutely clear to the US citizens of Puerto Rico that territory status is unreliable. And as a result, there’s been a series of votes first one in 2012, then another one in 2017 immediately before the hurricanes, and then the most recent one in 2020 in which each time the US citizens of Puerto Rico have rejected continuing under the current territory status, and supported statehood as their preferred option among the non territory options that are constitutionally viable. So the last vote was in 2020, and we had 52% say yes to statehood in a very simple statehood, yes or no vote. And Congress is currently considering legislation to advance that issue and resolve Puerto Rico’s current territory. I’m actually very actively involved in supporting the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act, which is one of the two pieces of legislation that Congress is considering right now.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you talk about the legacy of colonialism though, which is still present in the current structure, but how that actually ends up impacting Puerto Rico’s ability to have any resiliency in the face of great disaster? We saw that with the electrical grid system in particular, can you go into that?
George Laws Garcia: Well, the legacy of colonialism is very clear in that when the United States acquired Puerto Rico in 1898, it did so for geostrategic military purposes. It wanted to have a protection against the projection of military power by Europe, particularly to the Panama Canal, which was the main thorough way for transoceanic commerce that the United States had to connect the East Coast with the West Coast, right. And Puerto Rico provided a perfect platform to be able to kind of shield that American investment and also project power out into the Atlantic. But Puerto Rico was also acquired as a captive market for the sale of US goods and services. So at the time, there wasn’t the World Trade Organization or all the free trade agreements there are now so you know, having a colony was about being able to get something out of it, and then also sell them your stuff, right. And then the reality is that the way the federal government has treated Puerto Rico under federal laws, even after the granting of United States citizenship has been unequally across a number of different, you know, federal laws and programs.
So for some things were domestic for some things, we are international, like Federal Tax Law. But then what ends up happening is that it leads to a systemic underinvestment in key, both hard infrastructure like electric grids, roads, bridges, telecommunications, etc. And then it also leads to huge underinvestment in soft infrastructure, which is education, system, health care, etc. And as a result, when the Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, we had a total power outage across the entirety of the island, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority proper, basically had a 100% failure rate across the island. And it was devastating, that ended up being the number one factor that led to over 2800 close to 3000 excess deaths as a result of the hurricane. So while some people died from injuries sustained during the hurricane, or collapses of infrastructure, those tended to be like relatively small, but a huge number of the people who died, which probably wouldn’t have died, if we hadn’t had the hurricane, they died because their electricity was out, and they didn’t have the access to transportation and get them to the health care that they needed. Or they’re elderly people, their ventilators or other you know, medical equipment wasn’t functioning, their refrigerators for their medicines weren’t operating, it was pretty devastating. So that inequality that happens under colonialism creates a structural vulnerability that becomes exacerbated and highlighted. And basically, the mask was taken off the situation in Puerto Rico when the hurricane happened.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I think that a lot of people when they hear the legacy of colonialism, they think it’s something from so long ago, or they look at central or in South America too and they say, why don’t they get it? Why can’t they? Why is it messy in certain places? Or why their infrastructure isn’t that good? What they have to know is that any infrastructure put in place was put in place for the most efficient way to extract natural resources. And that is not necessarily the best way, of course, to build or maintain an infrastructure that will sustain the population that lives there, especially when people then left. And if you don’t have an economy that can support infrastructure, which is so expensive and so necessary. So it leads to a lot of systemic issues. And with Puerto Rico, that was just really painful. Yes, the mask fell, but the mask needed to fall. So if there was any good that came out of that it was that people couldn’t delude themselves anymore.
George Laws Garcia: That’s definitely true. And we saw that in the data afterwards, as horrible as it may seem, the fact that the hurricanes happened helped to increase the awareness among the American public that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Were part of the United States before the hurricane. I think the statistics show that about 35 to 45% of American households were aware that the people of Puerto Rico are United States citizens, and that we’re Americans. And after the hurricane that went up to 80, some 90%, I’m sure over time, it will go back down again, which is precisely why it’s so important that we not only execute a proper disaster recovery, but that we also address the underlying issue of legal and constitutional inequality because of the colonial territory status.
“It’s so important that we not only execute a proper disaster recovery, but that we also address the underlying issue of legal and constitutional inequality because of the colonial territory status.” –George Laws Garcia
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, no taxation without representation. I mean, that’s fundamentally American. So I would like you to tell us your disaster story. Take us back to 2017, and where were you, and how did your family fare, your home, and all of those, tell us your story.
George Laws Garcia: So 2017 was possibly one of the hardest years of my life, and I sit here today in 2021. But if I think back to that moment, the hairs in my arm get raised because there’s just a lot of emotion associated with it. I was serving at the time as the deputy director of the Washington DC office of the governor of Puerto Rico, so I wasn’t physically located in Puerto Rico, and we had to back to back categories for hurricanes. Hurricane Irma, which came first and grazed Puerto Rico’s Northwest portion. There was an island municipality vehicle that was heavily impacted. There were power outages on the island, but within a few days, most of the power had been restored. And then less than two weeks later, we got hit by Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Maria had been a category five, it just downgraded before hitting Puerto Rico. But it was a very powerful category which was incredibly devastating in terms of the speed of the wind, the amount of water that came, and it crossed through the center of the island from one end to the other diagonally. And that meant that there wasn’t a single inch of Puerto Rico that was not heavily impacted by the hurricane. In Washington DC, our office essentially went from one day being an operation that mostly focused on public policy issues and supporting the governor’s agenda, and lobbying Congress, and interacting with the federal executive to all of a sudden becoming a Disaster Response Center. The government of Puerto Rico as a whole was essentially shut down. Electricity was shut down across the island. Our entire telecommunications infrastructure was shut down for several days. It was just anyone who wanted to communicate had to have a satellite telephone to be able to do that.
So from one moment to the other, our office became the only entity in the entire government of Puerto Rico that was fully operational. So we were in direct communication with the White House, with FEMA, with the Governor, which thankfully, we were able to communicate with him, but we were channeling all of his communications through our office. We were also the recipients of an overwhelming amount of attention and requests for assistance from those 5 million Puerto Ricans that live stateside that were worried sick about their 3 million family members on the island. They were calling, no one was answering, text messages were left unanswered, and people had this huge sense of fear and desperation of not knowing what was going on. To give you an idea of the scale of what we confronted, I think in a 48 hour period, our phone system handled about 30,000 calls.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Wow.
George Laws Garcia: It’s insane. It’s insane. So it was very overwhelming. It was disorienting. There was so much to do that it was very hard to kind of wrap your head around. And my job was basically to continue facilitating the governor’s communication with all the pertinent federal authorities, the FEMA, White House Department of Defense, every other federal entity that could be brought to bear in that situation. And then also to begin outreach to Congress to let them know, hey, this just happened. The scale of devastation is unknown as of yet, but it looks like it is a total catastrophe. So that basically went on for a few months before things started to settle down even a little bit.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, and it’s also to don’t lose sight of the fact that as a leader or somebody trying to facilitate some kind of recovery, you have also undergone, it’s personally harrowing as well. And I just want to call that out because it matters that you had the lead, while also being a suffering, and worrying about the suffering and being concerned about the inequities already there.
George Laws Garcia: That’s something that cannot be underestimated. You’re called forth to stand up in a moment of absolute need. But at the same time, you’re a victim as well. My father was in Puerto Rico, so I didn’t have any communication with him. I had friends and other family members, my extended family that were also down there people that I cared about, which I didn’t know. And then it was also traumatizing because we were at times receiving calls in our office about live situations. In some cases, there were hundreds or thousands of people that were stranded in an area that was flooding immediately after the hurricane because the hurricane passes, but the rains continue. The after effects are cascading. Some of the infrastructure begins to break down and then other things come up. And at the time, our office was the only government agency in the entire government that was answering the phones, and we ended up getting calls patch through from Puerto Rico. I don’t know how they got through, but some got through. And then they’re like, we’re in this community, waters rising, it’s already past the first level most of the people here on the roofs of their homes, we need to have a massive rescue like right now. We were able to get on the phone with the governor. He called him the National Guard and they went and rescued hundreds of families including elderly people, people with small children standing on the roofs of their houses because the houses had been flooded. You’re on the receiving end of some of those calls, and that’s traumatizing, it’s scary, you’re afraid that you won’t be able to help them because you’re this far away as well.
So dealing with that was pretty significant. I have to say that it’s taken me years to really kind of process out some of the post traumatic stress disorder, and there’s still things that sometimes trigger that anxiety, certain visuals. If I see one of those doppler radar images with something that looks like a hurricane approaching Puerto Rico, it gets me a little buggy.
“The psychological, emotional, and even spiritual impact is often unaddressed. But it does take you to the edges of your human capacity to withstand. If you’re able to process and manage, you can end up with a much stronger sense of resiliency and capacity.” –George Laws Garcia
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I feel that way about, I don’t know if you have it there, we have Nixle, and it was going off like constantly to the point where I had no Nervous System left after two weeks. I was like, I can’t have it. We get it from two counties, because we’re in Sonoma Valley which borders Napa County. So we get there in Sonoma County, say I can certainly relate to that. I’m glad that you are very straightforward about what PTSD does in fact last for years after a disaster. It does affect people who are anybody who has any kind of personal or emotional stake, or experiences it, or does experience it, I curiously or the service of it, and leaders tend to not want to talk about it as much. I always bring it up on this podcast, because I think that we have a role responsibility to be very upfront that we are human, and it is incredibly difficult to navigate.
“We do have the capacity to come together as communities to address our own needs, sometimes in ways that are more powerful than what the government can do for us.” –George Laws Garcia
George Laws Garcia: Yeah. No, no, definitely. I think that’s critically important. The psychological and emotional impact, and even spiritual impact is often unaddressed. But it really does take you to the edges of your human capacity to withstand. But one of the things that if you’re able to process and manage, or you can end up with a much stronger sense of resiliency and capacity. And I think that’s one of the things that we’ve seen out of the post disaster recovery in Puerto Rico that individuals and communities learned a lot more how they were able to band together, do the things they needed to do for themselves. And yes, get the support from the government. Get the meal, the hot meals that were being flown in by FEMA, and the water that was being delivered by the Puerto Rico National Guard. But who was taking care of the grandmother that needed to get somewhere, or the pregnant mother that needed to go to the hospital, and then leave her kids behind because she had to go and deliver? Who were the people that were actually going to clean up the piles of trees that had fallen so that you could access a road that was a private road that led to an entire community? And all of those instances, what they did was, I think, open the eyes of a lot of people in Puerto Rico to the fact that we do have the capacity to come together as communities to address our own needs, sometimes in ways that are more powerful than what the government can do for us.
“The community was the cavalry.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think my favorite part of disaster, which is weird is exactly the moment that you’re talking about that, when it happens to your own community, we kind of sit back and we think, okay, all the people who were in charge are going to show up, they’re going to take care of everything, and they’re gonna tell me what to do. And for me, it was like, on day three, when I realized that the cavalry wasn’t going to show up, in fact, the community was the cavalry, and then we could get this done and not look towards external stakeholders to save us. You’re right, they showed up with showers and food. But initially, we didn’t have that either. We didn’t have that for a couple of days. So figuring out how elderly people can’t sleep on the floor of a gym. So how do we solve that? We put it out on Facebook, and then people bring you 800 clothes or whatever they have in their garage. But just the strength of community and the magic of community, that’s the part that I was forever transformed by, I think you are always transformed by disaster. But what I took away from it was sort of a testament to humankind that we are not all divided. We don’t care about each other like–
“After every disaster, communities need to be rebuilt, but it shouldn’t just be the powers from above that decide how that happens. There should be a participatory process for people to engage and reassess.” –George Laws Garcia
George Laws Garcia: Literally, the embodiment of that famous line, it was the worst of times, it was the best of times. You see the worst that nature or humanity can bring, but you also see just some amazing acts of kindness, generosity, solidarity, compassion. And for me, now looking back several years out from the disaster, I think that that’s what we need to really build on in terms of our society in general, finding ways to actually support and empower communities. Do use that innate sense of wanting to care for our own neighbors and our own community members, and find ways to channel resources and dedicate them so that we can actually be empowered to be the authors of our own resilience in the face of future disasters, and also the authors of our own reconstruction. Because ultimately after every disaster, communities need to be rebuilt, but it shouldn’t just be the powers from above that decide how that happens, there really should be a participatory process for people to engage and kind of reassess. Do we want to build back the way that we were? Do we want to change things? And if so, how can we better meet the needs of our community and achieve greater resilience in the process?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that so much because our community to community program is built upon the idea that communities should lead and design their own recovery. And our job is to find the leaders and say, and they can be emergent, they don’t have to be official in their official capacity. They have to be trusted by the community, they have to have good social connectivity. We also talk to the public sector and we try to help them all like, figure out all their lanes together, and how to be collaborative so that they can design in their own community. So when they might say to me, oh, can you do this? And I’ll be like, no, but I can let you teach you how to do it because I don’t know your community. I can listen, and I can give you advice and adaptable systems, but they’re not prescriptive. I’m certainly not a savior. I don’t have perfect answers. I have a history of working in a disaster effective community, and I know a lot of other people who’ve also done it, so maybe you can just use them as you need in order for you to design your own recoveries. I love that you said that.
George Laws Garcia: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. And it’s something that I say from personal experience. Because having been in government during the disaster, in the post disaster, immediate recovery period, and then later on as the reconstruction framework was being developed, I can tell you that there are significant deficiencies in the capacity of both the federal government and state governments to actually account for the input from the respective communities that they’re developing all these plans to rebuild. One specific example, CDBG-DR. So obviously, that’s one of the biggest sources of federal funding for post disaster reconstruction. It’s incredibly flexible. It has a ton of different capabilities, but the engagement that is required by federal regulation and statute for the development of the action plans is a very shallow level of engagement. And I firmly believe that the federal government and state governments need to exercise more leadership and creativity in finding ways to have that engagement be more substantial, have more depth, but also be able to be sustained over time as opposed to we just take one snapshot right at the beginning of when this action plan is done. You submit your comments, we respond to them in writing, we hold this perfunctory little hearing and end of story, we’re out the door, and we’re going to spend however many billions of dollars.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But it takes years for that money to come. And so the problem is totally, it’s also completely different by the time that the money–
George Laws Garcia: Exactly.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And you have to know how to apply for it. And often you have to, the immediate FEMA, some of that really comes to the match requirements like debris removal. So 25% has to be borne by the local entities, 75% is by FEMA. A lot of times, it’s changed to 90/10 depending on the scale of the disaster, but just the accessibility to tell people what these funds are. I know what they are, but not every listener is going to know what those block grants are. It just occurred to me that we’re going to put this out, but it’s good to say.
“People want to have their voices heard. And oftentimes, you’ll get feedback from people that have ideas that you won’t hear inside of a government office or coming from a federal agency.” –George Laws Garcia
George Laws Garcia: Yeah, and that’s also part of the equation. We have to, I think, as organizations like yourself, and part of the work that I do is try to decipher and decode the government structures, the programs, the different legal frameworks that are utilized in a disaster response and any post disaster recovery process. Because the reality is that unless our communities have a way of actually understanding and being able to access that. What ends up happening is that you have a bunch of technocrats, bureaucrats, experts and high paid consultants that serve as the magical interpreters for how all of this takes place. But ultimately, what that does is it actually leaves out a huge amount of input that is of infinite value to the process of a recovery. It is inclusive that is actually responsive to the vision that communities have of where they want to go economically, how they want their needs met. And that really is it has buy in. And what I found is, politically, having worked for elected officials, there’s a huge potential for backlash. Like we recovered and things got rebuilt, but I didn’t really have a say I didn’t participate in it. And oftentimes, that leaves people feeling left out or ignored. And part of the recovery process, going back to kind of the emotional, psychological components is people having the need to process their inclusion as part of resolving this massive trauma that took place, and people want to have their voices heard. And oftentimes, you’ll be able to get feedback from people that have ideas that you just won’t hear inside of a government office or coming from a federal agency.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And they’re not going to take the time necessary to know the Federal Register exists in order to find the RFI, the request for inputs on there. And that’s like the first barrier. I don’t think it’s intentional, like the federal government has to have policies that govern a lot of people. We also serve on this together, which is a National Disaster Advocacy Council for Resiliency and Recovery. And it’s one of the things we’ve certainly talked about inside of that platform, as well as we would like to see more equity in disaster for all communities, especially rural communities. If you don’t know the registry exists, and you might know the register exists, then you have to have the capacity to actually go in and answer all the questions. But first, you have to decipher what they’re asking. The last one that we did was on equity, and we pointed out in our answers that between Molly and I, my staffer, we have three undergraduate degrees and three master’s degrees. And it took all of our education to decipher what they were asking, which in of itself creates gross inequities. It wasn’t on purpose. I understand the intention is solid, but we can do better. I actually, now is a good time to turn to talking about post disaster for Puerto Rico getting caught in 2017 in the midst of a very sort of dark time in our country, but also a time when, I’m going to say this that a racism seems to be very emboldened. Not only where did you have the pre existing infrastructure problems, the inequities, we were also in a time that was very challenging for Puerto Rico. Can you talk about how politics entered into that right away and has gotten better, but not miracle style.
George Laws Garcia: So the fact that Puerto Rico had the major disaster of hurricanes Irma and Maria back to back, which by the way haven’t been the only natural disasters that have happened in Puerto Rico. We also had a historic series of earthquakes that happened at the beginning of 2020. And then of course, the COVID pandemic like the rest of the country in the world which is its own form of disaster. But to give you an idea of the scale of damage, the estimated damages after hurricanes Irma and Maria were between 90 and $124 billion, according to the experts. For the earthquakes, there were, I think, between 1 and 3 billion. So these are pretty significant disasters, for sure. And what ended up happening for us is that it came at a time where the federal executive at that time, President Trump and his administration, were very quick to issue the disaster declaration, and immediately began providing resources. But what we ended up noticing was that the amount of attention that was being provided to Puerto Rico in comparison to Florida and Texas, both of them states with large electoral college impact was significantly different.
There was, of course, all the logistical difficulties of providing disaster assistance to the island territory. But for God’s sake, America’s able to invade other countries like Afghanistan and set up secure telecommunications networks in a matter of like 24 hours. Why is it that we didn’t have secure telecommunications capabilities applied to Puerto Rico four days of not kind of weeks on end. So there were things like that that were just very hard to understand at the time in which they were happening. And over time, we began to realize that they did have political implications within the White House. The level of the President himself, there was a different view of the US citizens of Puerto Rico and the assistance that they were worthy of, US citizens in any other state under similar circumstances. And this is something that’s been documented by a number of former administration officials that have testified and given reports to the press about how they heard statements made in the situation room and other places about Puerto Rico that were discriminatory in nature and even talk about the sale of Puerto Rico which is something absolutely absurd–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Trade?
George Laws Garcia: Exactly, yeah. And this is not like a baseball card that you can just throw out after 123 years. So there was a lot of that. The place where it played out most explicitly was actually in the approval of the reconstruction funding for Puerto Rico. Congress already had kind of a messy situation at that time, but Puerto Rico is one of the political chips that was used by members of Congress that didn’t want to give the level of aid to Puerto Rico that was commensurate with the level of disaster that we’d had. They didn’t think that we had the need for that in their view, it’s mostly because they had their own political opinions about what Puerto Rico should be or what role it plays as part of the United States. And that was very, very intense, and very challenging. I will say that we, for the most part, are successful in overcoming that legislatively. And we got a lot of money, like a historic amount appropriated, I would say, somewhere in the vicinity of like 60 to $80 billion, and that’s a huge swing. But there’s a number of factors that go into how actually, how much outlays end up going out. But then what happened is the federal executive just basically said, okay, so you got it through Congress. Fantastic. I’m just going to slow the spigot down. So it’s going to drip drip drip, as opposed to coming out in a way that was really responsive to the immediacy of the need for recovery and reconstruction that Puerto Rico.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because it was literally held back by the office, the OMB office. And that’s how we knew because we couldn’t figure out why our funds weren’t coming through at the time, the rate that they were for, say Houston. So we’re like, what’s going on here? And then we found out that it was all being slowed down through the executive office. Ours happened to be coupled with yours, so we were able to get it uncoupled. But I am not congratulating anybody on this, because I think it’s unfortunate for all and it just blew our minds the level of inequity that could be that politics get injected into disaster absolutions.
George Laws Garcia: Every vote, California has Kevin McCarthy and it has Nancy Pelosi so it’s got really high powered allies on both sides. I think that part of the reason why California’s aid was slowed down was as a way to punish Nancy Pelosi politically. She is unconscionable, because at the end of the day, the people you’re punishing are from every political stripe that you can imagine. They’re on the left, there on the right, they’re independent, they’re everywhere in between. They’re Americans, right?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We’re all Americans, that’s the thing. Yeah, it’s not right. I will say that Kevin McCarthy has been great to our area and a good representative, so I have to always point that out. He is the one who helped us initially when our disaster happened, because the republicans are in charge of the house. Nancy Pelosi has remained and has always been, and remains a great advocate for this area in our disasters. And behind the scenes, we see that the two of them can work together on these issues. It can be very bipartisan, it’s not a great talking point always for, people don’t want me to just be, that person’s bad, and this person’s good. But in this case, that actually had nothing to do with Congress. I think you’re right, the punishment of Pelosi, and that was coming straight from the executive office.
George Laws Garcia: In the case of Puerto Rico at the time of the disaster, we had a Governor who was a democrat, Ricardo Rosello, and our member of congress resident commissioner, Jenniffer Gonzalez, who was a Republican. We also have a kind of bipartisan representation that was at the helm of negotiating what was going on with congress and with the executive. But I think that the overarching framework with folks in the Trump administration, particularly some folks at the OMB, saw Puerto Rico as a second order of priority in comparison to Florida and Texas. And that was based on their own personal, political and racial biases. And I have to say that up front, because I saw it in person. It’s not something that someone told me. I literally heard some of these types of comments on the phone, and I’ll give you one specific example. At one point, states were submitting their proposals for what they wanted out of a disaster supplemental package and we were told by Trump administration officials at the highest level within OMB, oh, don’t submit it now. Wait till the next package comes along, and then you can submit what your request is. We, of course, ignored that we submitted our request immediately. And of course, there was no leader package, but you can get a sense of just how callous the framing was, as well as the belief that the people they were interacting with were intellectually inferior because it was absolutely clear to us that we got to get on the train that’s moving not in some other future train that will come at some point.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think it was feeding their acres and takers narrative. Oh, Puerto Rico is a mess. They’ve had this happen, but they aren’t saying, oh, look at our impact on Puerto Rico historically has created their infrastructure issues, their financial issues, and this is an opportunity to actually dive in and deal with all these things at once because we are also responsible for them. And instead, it was like, oh, they just want more from us.
George Laws Garcia: Very literal statements and tweets by the President, oh, this is breaking our bank or something like that. And it’s just like, come on. Do you see that when Oklahoma gets hit by tornadoes? Of course not. That doesn’t make any sense.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think California got some of those tweets too.
George Laws Garcia: I know, I know. We weren’t alone on that one.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: No, no, we weren’t alone. So we have about five or 10 minutes left, and I think this is a good time to ensure that I’ve given you the platform to say whatever you want to say. But if you could quickly go over the specific challenges in Puerto Rico related to replacing housing, but 52% of the stock was ad hoc housing prior to your disaster, Maria, and Irma. So how did you navigate that through, especially block grants for housing that show up in your conversations? Or how do you account for the number of people? I’m just saying that having poor infrastructure in advance makes it very hard to sometimes account and rebuild, especially when you have something like the Stafford Act. So maybe we should go straight to that, because that also affected the electrical grid. Let’s do that.
“You don’t think about the state government property registry as being a disaster issue; it’s boring but it’s there. It’s a reality.” –George Laws Garcia
George Laws Garcia: Yeah. So the reality is that in Puerto Rico, the rate of homeownership is much higher than it is nationwide, but we do have a different kind of legal structure than in most states. Because in Puerto Rico, the law is based on the Old Spanish Civil Code, which is kind of Napoleonic Law, as opposed to common law, which is what the the legal basis for the law and most of the states are. And in part as a result of that, and in part because of underinvestment in state government agencies, databases and infrastructure. There’s a huge percentage or a significant percentage of homes in Puerto Rico that are not properly titled and that have some issues of discrepancies in the exactitude of homeownership and things like that. So that was a huge challenge in the immediate post disaster period. Because one thing is for FEMA to come in and help put up some blue tarps, and we had literally tens of thousands of homes with the blue tarps. And for them to do kind of immediate repairs to just make the house like habitable so you can have a roof over your head and not have your house be a complete disaster. But to go from that to like the permanent reconstruction of homes required some of this documentation. So our CDBG-DR, and some of the money that we allocated in the action plan are specifically to address and remedy some of these legal situations so that people could end up having their full reconstruction of their home if their home was totaled by the disaster. So that’s one of the approaches that we took, but there were also a whole bunch of challenges with regards to the identification of these parcels of property. And that all has to do with the state government property registry. You don’t really think about the state government property registry as being a disaster issue. Guess what it is? It’s boring, but it’s there. It’s a reality.
And if you don’t have some of those state government structures properly maintained and up to date, it becomes a lot harder when you’re trying to do kind of global estimates of the numbers of damage, but then also ensure that things are properly accounted for and where all of the properties are that you want to address. So that was a huge challenge. We’re still overcoming some of that challenge, some of the money from the CDBG-DR is still being outlaid for those purposes. I would say that Puerto Rico’s recovery continues. It has been slow, but steady since the current administration came into effect. The beginning of this year, we have seen an uptick in the flow of money to Puerto Rico. A large portion of that is also because a lot of the kind of administrative deficiencies had already been addressed to make sure that all the money’s deployed in a way that’s accountable to federal officials. But there’s still a lot more to be done. My estimate is, it’ll probably be maybe another decade before we actually finish, like the full reconstruction and the full utilization of the resources that we’ve gotten Congress to appropriate for Puerto Rico’s recovery and reconstruction.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I think one of the lessons out of Puerto Rico was that it really highlighted how some elements of the Stafford Act are really inefficient, and don’t make any sense at all. And specifically, the part of the Stafford Act that says you have to build back to the standard you were before in the case of the electrical grid because of colonialism, it was built on the other side of the island from where most of the population is. So things like that can be addressed. Can you talk about the effect that had on the recovery because it makes zero sense.
George Laws Garcia: No, that particular standard doesn’t make any sense in the case of Puerto Rico, but I’m sure it doesn’t make any sense in the case of a lot of other communities across the United States.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It doesn’t go anywhere, but nothing, it means they’re trying to stop crying, which I totally appreciate. And I thank them for that. But I think there was no better example of how it’s dysfunctional than the electrical grid.
“It’s great to rebuild, but we actually need to fortify so that in the future, we have a greater resilience capacity and mitigate against future disasters.” –George Laws Garcia
George Laws Garcia: Basically, rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electric grid to the standards to which it was built, which are standards that were mostly from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s made absolutely no sense and would have left us with pretty much the same level of structural vulnerability that Puerto Rico was at before the hurricane with the big difference that now we had more pre staged materials to kind of prop things up quicker. But what ended up happening in the case of Puerto Rico is that we actually proceeded to use, I think it’s the alternate procedure, I think it’s Section 528 which ended up providing us more flexibility for how we rebuild. But it also comes with some risks that the jurisdiction who’s selecting that particular provision takes on in terms of once the cost is set for what it’s going to cost under Section 528. There is no escalation potential. And if the estimate is off significantly, then the jurisdiction choosing that basically takes on the difference whereas under the regular FEMA funding. You have different points at which the cost estimates can be revised and increased depending on what’s funded.
So for Puerto Rico, the additional flexibility I think is really important. But how all of that plays out is also made more complex in the case of our electric grid because Puerto Rico is also in the process of actually privatizing its Electric Power Authority. So right now, we’ve initiated the privatization process. The company that’s administering the electric power distribution system is called Luma. They came into effect in their contract earlier this year, and they’re challenges to sustain what we have to continue the rebuilding and then to invest or resiliency in the longer term, while at the same time not escalating energy prices in a way that negatively impacts our economy. So that’s a tough combo to do, and we’re working through that we were able to get some CDBG-DR funding specifically for the reconstruction of the electric grid and for hazard mitigation, which is also something that doesn’t get talked about enough that needs to get talked about more. Because obviously, it’s great to rebuild, but we actually need to fortify so that in the future, we have a greater resilience capacity and mitigate against future disasters.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Either way we look at as we assume 2020 is a really difficult year because that’s all I can handle. 10 to 20 years, that’s like, okay, it’s just going to be really bad, but we figure out our mitigations is also why a third of our organization is dedicated to before the fire. Called that as its trademark because it’s such an important thing we can just continue to have to respond. We can actually invest and save, because $1 to mitigate for every $6 of responding to a major disaster. I love having you on George, I’d like you to leave us with, the podcast is called How To Disaster, there are people who are both formally and informally in a position to work in disaster. What’s your best and highest three things to know about how to disaster,
George Laws Garcia: I think that there’s nothing that can fully prepare you for when a massive disaster hits. You really have to kind of dig deep in that moment to the core of your being pulled on every kind of mental, psychological, professional, spiritual, political resource that you can bring to bear to get through the actual disaster itself. And then the second thing I would say is it is fundamentally important to know that you’re not alone, that there are other communities that have been through disaster, that they’ve learned some hard lessons from that, and that you have the capacity to reach out for help. And that oftentimes, other communities that have been through disaster, they’ve gotten great people willing to help walk you through some of the challenges that are there, and how to not make some of the mistakes that some other people made.
And then the last thing is that this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. There may be moments when you’re in a disaster in an immediate post disaster period where you think I’ve got to get all these things done. And yes, there’s a lot of things to get done, but we have to realize that for recovery to really happen, you actually need to sustain the effort over a long period of time. If you’re burning the candle on both ends, there’s only so long you can do that before you burn out. And I had a close colleague of mine that ended up 30 some years old having a heart attack. That was a heck of a wake up moment for me because we were pretty much the same age, we’re in similar circumstances. And part of what I learned from that is that you have to be able to pace yourself and sustain the effort and recover in a disaster in a sustainable way.
“This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. There’s a lot of things to get done, but for recovery to happen, you need to sustain the effort over a long period of time. If you’re burning the candle on both ends, there’s only so long you can do that before you burn out.” –George Laws Garcia
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s all great advice. I love leaving on that note that it takes so long to recover. We saw people burn out or have substance abuse issues, and it’s been a good wake up call for me too. I had some of those people on the podcast who’ve been very open, like Pat Kerrigan of her local media person who really had a hard time with alcoholism, and she had to become very public with that. She was very courageous. It weirdly helped a lot of other people understand. I understood at some point that I had to slow down and move out of fight or flight. I had to learn about the vagus nerve. I had to learn to meditate. And now, I just have to learn how to be consistent because I still struggle with that. But I think it’s an important thing for leaders to talk about, and not to lose sight of the fact that it is long, but you will get through it.
George Laws Garcia: Exactly right. Thank you so much, Jennifer, it’s been a pleasure to be here with you. And thank you so much for the opportunity to join your podcast, How To Disaster. I greatly appreciate that. If anyone in your audience wants to know more about my organization and my company, it’s www.mirsoniagroup.com. So feel free to check us out there. You can also find me on LinkedIn and Twitter where mostly I talked about statehood.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I follow you on Twitter. I know that I like it. Thank you so much for being on. I really enjoyed having you on the podcast and serving with you on canvas. So we will drop a link to Mirsonia Group in the description so people can just follow that as well. And thank you so much for being on the podcast, How To Disaster. Thank you for joining us on the podcast, How To Disaster. For more information, please visit our website at afterthefireusa.org, and if you liked this video, please hit subscribe.