Driving in pitch black conditions without a reliable GPS system was already scary enough on the second day of my deployment in Puerto Rico. But then it rained. By rain I mean it was if the skies had cracked open and decided to create a new lake and river system—at least that’s what it looked like to me. Water surrounded my gray rental car and began to swell up just a foot or so from my side windows. I had heard of flash flooding before and I had even seen it on TV; as I watched a tree float past me, at that moment I suddenly understood why people lose their lives in these situations.
Still saturated from the floodwaters of Hurricane Maria, the soil couldn’t absorb any more water and drainage systems were still blocked with debris. For a few hours that day, San Juan looked more like Venice, though instead of gondolas and the sound of beautiful arias in the air, cars that were once parked were floating around me while violent winds roared, interrupted only by the occasional spine-tingling crash of thunder. If this was just a bad storm, what was the hurricane like, I wondered?
I cautiously negotiated my way in the unfamiliar territory, finding higher ground where possible. I drove up on sidewalks, half up on curbs, the wrong way on a one-way street, all just to find a place to feel safe. Luckily I found such a place. While I waited out the storm, I had some time to think about what had brought me here in the first place. I started to think about how I had strangely been prepared to be in a disaster situation and how I now found myself at ground zero.
In the spring of 2017, I attended a Public Affairs Qualification Course in Ft. Meade, MD at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). The intensive program was three months long and when I graduated, I felt that it was the best government-funded training I had ever had. The compressed course is the academic equivalent of an Associate’s degree, which generally take two years to complete. At DINFOS, I learned about the industry standard for journalism, writing press releases in the proper Associated Press style, how to coordinate and conduct media interviews, how to write communication plans, how to produce an effective public service announcement, how to draft speeches for others, how to present my own speech, and how to run an effective press conference. The course covered those and dozens of other public affairs topics. Between the eight hours of daily in-class training and the three to four hours of homework each night, we became “DINFOS-trained warriors”.
I was blown away by the amount of practical training I had received. But a substantial portion of the training course involved how to operate in a disaster situation. We did simulations of a major hurricane, earthquake, an active shooter, and even a scenario involving international political tensions. We also explored the intricacies of the “National Response Framework”, a document outlining how the federal government responds to an emergency. While I crouched under a table during the earthquake simulation, I wondered how any of the emergency response training had anything to do with my day-to-day job in the public affairs office back home in Buffalo, NY. I didn’t get it.
Being a native of Buffalo, the only natural disasters I had seen in my life here were severe winter storms. But even the heaviest snowstorms I’ve seen in my less than four decades on this earth couldn’t have mentally prepared me the destruction and devastation I saw on the island of Puerto Rico. Though I worked for the Small Business Administration Office of Disaster Assistance for nearly 10 years as one of their bilingual agents, I never fully understood the impact my job had on other people. Sure, I knew I was helping disaster victims by walking them through the steps of obtaining a low-interest disaster loan. I had even seen pictures and videos of mass destruction, and had calmed down thousands of distraught callers over the years. But I still didn’t get it.
Working in public affairs in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District, I never imagined I would be deployed to a disaster area. It never occurred to me that I would ever be needed in that type of situation. But then Harvey happened. Then Irma. And then Maria. I hadn’t needed to speak Spanish as part of my job for a couple years and apart from maintaining relationships with some Hispanic friends, speaking Spanish was a skill I hadn’t been using for a while. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I would eventually lose my fluency. When I learned that Spanish-speaking public affairs personnel were needed in Puerto Rico, it seemed like I was destined to be there. The disaster response invisible hand was leading me to help disaster victims again but this time I was to help in person.
It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been in a disaster area how completely turned upside-down things can be. Things you take for granted and rely on are now unavailable, and simple activities you once did can now seem impossible—with no sense of when things might get back to normal.
The day I got caught in that storm heading back to the San Juan Convention Center, I lost my signal on my cell phone. I couldn’t make calls and the GPS software on the phone all but mocked my attempts to navigate my way. Despite my good sense to bring a backup GPS (the kind you mount to your vehicle), even that device proved unhelpful. Streets that appeared on the maps didn’t exist in real life and vice-versa, streets that appeared in front of me did not show up on the maps. Communication was a commodity and that commodity after Hurricane Maria was scarce. The communication breakdown in Puerto Rico was apparent not only in the telecommunications realm, but also in the lack of internet accessibility, television, and even radio in some cases.
You don’t realize how much society relies on power until the power goes off. Looking back to my DINFOS training, we had simulated communication outages. We had a mock “Joint Information Center”, and I remember them cutting off certain resources like computers, internet, or phones so we had to think on our feet and still get the job done. We had reporters (course instructors) calling on speed dial. We were doing interviews in radio studios, live interviews at mock TV sets, and live-remote interviews while staring into a camera. We had press releases going out on the hour, we had major, quick decisions that had to be made in a matter of minutes. We had field teams gathering on-site information. We had social media teams informing the public of new developments. We had to hastily put together last-minute press conferences to include messaging and talking points, and opening speeches. Somehow the DINFOS instructors had created a scenario that could raise your adrenaline and suspend your disbelief just long enough to make you believe you were in a real disaster crisis. That sense of urgency was real in Puerto Rico. I started to get it. I started to understand the importance of what I had learned.
My first day in San Juan was Oct. 7, 2017, just shy of three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall. Driving along the highways and through the local streets, I could see debris piled everywhere. Power lines dangled from their poles like spaghetti noodles, and some of the poles themselves were snapped in half. House after house had missing windows, roofs, or walls missing. There was still so much debris, someone could have told me the storm happened the day before and I could have believed him. I learned very quickly that my deployment tour was going to be challenging and at times, overwhelming. But DINFOS had prepared me for this experience, and I was ready.
In my first 30 days on deployment, I acted as the USACE liaison to FEMA and stayed in Puerto Rico for additional 30 days as a public affairs specialist with Task Force Power Restoration. In both of these roles, I found myself doing everything I was trained to do at DINFOS. The only major difference was that I was doing public affairs in two languages. Having seen the full spectrum of government trainings over my tenure as a public servant, I can honestly say that DINFOS was truly an investment for the public good. The skills I acquired from the Public Affairs Qualification Course directly impacted my ability to communicate effectively to the public. It is an amazing feeling to know that you’ve learned something and that you can show evidence that you’ve learned it.
While Puerto Rico continues to recover, I still periodically review the communications sent out by the public affairs team who took over for my colleagues and me when we returned home. I take extra pride in looking at the work of fellow federal public affairs professionals because I know the tough training it took to be able to tackle this challenging job. DINFOS-trained warriors are tough.
Training federal employees is an investment.
According to Training Magazine, training expenditures in the U.S. for 2017 were $90.6 billion, up nearly 33 percent from the prior year. Regardless if an organization is from the public or private sector, leaders are recognizing the value of investing in training their employees.
The Office of Personnel Management requires Federal agencies to report training events and associated expenses at least on a monthly basis. Even if training is part of an agency’s overhead costs, OPM requires data on things such as a Learning Management System, online libraries (e-Learning packages), employee licenses, commercial-off-the-shelf products, and even course development costs. The reason training is so closely monitored is that taxpayers want to see a return on their investment.
The public may not always be able to piece together what employee had what training, specifically. For me, the return on investment of the taxpayer’s dollars is evident by my ability to effectively communicate with the people of Puerto Rico, and back at my home office.