Hurricane Maria Responder: There Are Lessons N.H. Can Learn From Puerto Rico

Jan 14, 2020

Credit Ron Sher; PREP King Tide Photo Contest

Two years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island nation is still recovering.

Thomas O’Donovan, Director of the Water Division for New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services, was a first responder during Hurricane Maria. He says, there are lessons that coastal New Hampshire can learn from Puerto Rico as we deal with our own climate threats like higher tides, extreme storms, and rising sea levels here at home. 

O’Donovan will be giving a talk about his experiences in Puerto Rico tomorrow night at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth. He sat down with NHPR’s Peter Biello earlier today to recount this experience, and to discuss the strategies that he hopes New Hampshire can implement as we prepare for a major climates events in our future.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

So you were a responder in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. What brought you there?

Yeah, absolutely. So I had retired from the Army, and then retired from the Department of Energy. Then I got to be part of Louis Berger, a company that does worldwide engineering, and I went overseas to the Middle East to work on a very large construction project for them for some time. Came back from that, and retired. And then the hurricane hit Puerto Rico. They called up and said, 'Will you join our team and help with this response effort?' I started thinking about it, and I wasn't really too excited about it until I started thinking about all the Puerto Ricans I'd worked with during my years in the Army, and what a great job they'd done, great Americans they were. I owed them a debt. So I said 'Okay, I'll do it.' That whole conversation took about seven minutes, by the way, so it was a pretty fast conversation.

Well, tell us about what the experience was like. What was it like working there and being a responder after the hurricane?

Absolutely. First of all, it's difficult for someone who hasn't been in a recovery situation of a major disaster, I mean a truly national level disaster, to understand what it's like. I'll just give an example. So I got called up on Sunday morning, asked if I'd go down. Monday morning I'm on an airplane. Monday morning we hit the ground there in San Juan, got linked up in an airport that's totally not operational. The lights aren't working. The elevators aren't working. Escalators aren't working. HVAC's not working. Nothing's working. But flights are still coming and going and they've at least got air traffic control going. We go out to the parking garage, power had just come up recently, and we spent four hours getting out of the parking garage because it couldn't get the gates open because the power gone down again and the emergency generators were out. Four hours to get out of a parking garage just to get started on trying to help people in the emergency. It was kind of an indicator that this was a different kind of disaster than others that we might have seen. As an electrical disaster, it affected everything throughout society, from ATMs to stoplights to water to sewage to computers, you name it. Everything, including this interview, for example, that depends on electricity was impacted severely.

So having seen Puerto Rico after a major disaster, what lessons do you think we can learn from your experience for New Hampshire?

Absolutely. Some people say there's very, very little commonality between Puerto Rico and New Hampshire. I would say not quite the case. Puerto Rico, of course, an island. New Hampshire, though, in some ways you look... we have four major highways that come into the state. And you don't have to imagine too many tough scenarios... or crazy scenarios where something could happen to those highways and we could be essentially cut off in some ways from the areas around us. Not to the same extreme, but there are parallels there. It's about the same population. Puerto Rico's a little bit more. It's about the same income type distribution. And it's also very similar to New Hampshire in that there's these urban centers and then there's large rural areas. And it's also very mountainous with areas that are very remote in some ways from the urban center. So there's a lot of commonalities.

But when it comes to a major hurricane like that, a storm of that magnitude that comes across in 150 mile-an-hour or higher winds that are generated by those kinds of hurricanes, New Hampshire is not that far off from that. As climate change, or as the climate changes, which is the way I prefer to describe it, the opportunity for one of these hurricanes to come ashore eventually coming up the East Coast and coming ashore in New Hampshire is not that remote.

So in your estimation, how ready is New Hampshire for a massive hurricane like Maria?

Yeah, you know, I've only been in my position now as the Water Division director for about a year, and so I'm still learning a lot about that. I've had the opportunity to go down and take a look at some of the things that are being done. I've also had the chance to go look at other states and the work that they're doing, particularly states that were impacted by Hurricane Sandy. And I'll tell you, just in that kind of one-dimensional comparison, those states that were impacted by Hurricane Sandy seem to be capturing some of those lessons in a much deeper way, or some people would say perhaps through federal funding there will address them in a much deeper way. But in either case, they seem to be taking the protection of the electrical system, the roads, and the groundwater and sewer systems and those kinds things in a different way. And I hope to work with my team, our coastal team from DES, and New Hampshire's coastal communities to try to advance that forward.

Okay. So if you were in charge of putting together one kind of safety or preparedness element for New Hampshire, what might that be if you could just snap your fingers and have it done today?

It would be much more careful control of where we build. That is, we have to avoid building in areas that we know are going to be problematic in the future. And I know that's easy to say. Absolutely phenomenally easy to say, and much more challenging to achieve, but I think that's what we have to work towards.