Before examining Hurricane Maria’s stampede through Puerto Rico, let’s take a glimpse of this Caribbean island before the natural disaster hit. 3.4 million U.S. citizens live in this commonwealth of the United States. After being “discovered” by Columbus, the island endured Spanish colonial rule, disease, African slavery, attempted colonization by the French, Dutch, and British, the Spanish-American War, and the unending ambiguity of territorial status.
This past May, Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy with more than $70 billion in debt, exacerbated by the Jones Act, which doubles the cost of goods due to American control of Puerto Rican ports. PREPA, the main electric company on the island, has $9 billion in debt, resulting in total absence of modernization efforts of the power grid in Puerto Rico and frequent outages.
And then, Hurricane Maria happened, inflicting widespread devastation where significant challenges already existed. There is an opportunity here for procurement to play a significant role in helping Puerto Rico cope and eventually recover: by delivering the right supplies and services at the right time for the right cost in the right amounts to the right places.
Step 1: Be Proactive
One of procurement’s greatest strengths is the ability to be proactive. With hurricane season occurring around the same time each year, the United States can anticipate and prepare. Procurement contracts take weeks or months to process and implement, so taking advantage of the quieter seasons to pre-order inventory and store essential supplies is a must. Before natural disasters occur, existing and new contracts should be underway, with the right number of critical items in stock and lease/purchase contracts ready for backup. Based on past natural disaster experiences, bottlenecks should be identified and fixed in the procurement process, and decision-making strategies should be audited regularly. Citizens can prepare through awareness and self-procurement, while a procurement team should be created and trained to handle surges of procurement during emergencies.
Step 2: Determine Need
Procurement contracts are often created to address the greatest inefficiencies, but in an emergency, procurement should target the most-needed supplies and services first. Power and water are foundational resources: water for drinking and sanitation, and power for life-saving medical machines, air quality, communication, transportation, food storage, sewage, temperature control, and light. Those needs must be prioritized into the following categories: urgent (saving lives), intermediate (reducing suffering), and long term (rebuilding infrastructure and community).
Step 3: Collaborate on Strategy
Another positive aspect of procurement is that in an emergency, many organizations and individuals want to help. In Puerto Rico, dozens of nonprofits and the military have been working with FEMA and other government agencies to do the best they can. Unfortunately, the services have not met existing needs in terms of scale and speed, but there’s improvement with each procurement response—we learn what is needed, how much, and where. Strategy includes mobilizing the thousands of compassionate humans who want to help and organizing them, the service centers, and the equipment they need into a dynamic infrastructure. Risks must also be mitigated—teams must be aware and act against their vulnerability to fraud, corruption, inflated prices, and bribery.
Step 4: Document and Deliver
Procurement contracts should be executed as fast as possible, with accurate documentation and approvals, and supplies and services delivered through the right distribution channels. In this step, speed and flexibility should be prioritized over compliance with regulations. For the most urgent needs, speed should be given priority over attaining approvals.
Ways to Help Personally: