Corruption, Disarray, and Red Tape in Puerto Rico : Hard Lessons Learned

I’ve been hesitant to write about my experiences in Puerto Rico. A year having passed, I think there may be important lessons to learn.

The corruption runs deep. The unpreparedness and red tape handicap effective leadership.

A U.S. Coast Guard base in Puerto Rico should have been a shining example of leadership, of innovation, of American can-do spirit. Unfortunately, corrupt lawyers, entrenched monopolies, red tape, and ineffective leadership, at the highest levels, provide a glaring example of a dysfunctional government acting to hamstring first-responders and service-members. Gone are the days of improvising, adapting, and overcoming.

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through Puerto Rico, I saw the absolute devastation. I had just quit my job and left my life in DC behind to fly down and be with my Mother, recently widowed after we lost my father, a US Navy Captain- a real leader with the cojones to lead by example and pragmatism do what’s necessary to effect his command, to protect his people, and to stay mission-ready.

Together, we saw the absolute devastation in Puerto Rico. At the same time, Gotenna had just released Gotenna Mesh, an amazing product, the first and still ONLY off the shelf device that enables inexpensive, permit-free, long range disaster communications even when the towers fall — without any infrastructure whatsoever. We saw a young Puerto Rican volunteer geek climbing destroyed buildings in the carnage of San Juan to place these Gotenna Mesh communications repeaters to enable his people to coordinate and communicate without any other operational infrastructure. He needed power but couldn’t find batteries and couldn’t get solar panels. He needed to rapidly prototype, range test, signal test, and intelligently deploy mesh relay devices. At the same time, a friend told me about a Coast Guard base down there that had thousands of mil-spec hardened solar panels lining every building on base that survived the hurricanes but were feeding power into a broken electrical grid. There was no grid. While the surrounding community was without power (as it turns out for almost a year) these thousands of solar panels sat wholly unused- wasting the power that they generated while thousands around them died without water or power.

A monopolistic Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority (Prepa) had somehow cajoled / negotiated a deal with the US Coast Guard that forbade any use of these solar panels for self-sufficiency or readiness of the base, our military service-members, or their homes. While there were thousands of these solar panels that survived the storms, there was effectively no electrical grid to feed the charge back into — and the poorly negotiated contract prohibited them from harnessing the power locally — even if it was to keep our warfighters and first-responders ready, even if it was to share this surplus electricity with the neighboring community — even, as it was, that the energy was wholly wasted otherwise and people were dying. What you had was a command structure that saw the acute shortcomings and the gravity of the problem but were paralyzed, effectively handcuffed with red tape. Commendably, the local Commanding Officer sought out Tesla and sought to acquire power-wall devices to allow each and every building to be self-sufficient, to avoid being a drain on generator, diesel, and other scarce resources. The local CO sought to keep his team ready — to avoid waste. Admirable qualities for sure in a commanding officer. Because that’s exactly what a US Military Commanding Officer does. When in command, you command. You lead. That’s the Navy approach, sometimes the regs don’t deal with the problem and you can’t just land the plane, lives are on the line. You do what’s necessary to preserve your operational readiness and lives of Americans.

I arrived, sought to provide a liaison between Tesla and the U.S. Coast Guard to the extent I was able. Over a beer with the CO, XO, Ops Officer, Engineering, Public Works, and others, we discussed a plan to provide for localized inversion, regulation, and battery storage and reclamation systems in microgrids. During our discussions, we discussed my primary motivator for coming down, the Gotenna communications devices. The Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol were intrigued. They related to me that the very first thing that they do after every disaster is to do a head-count, to reestablish contact with each and every service-member in theater. Where, as here, the telephone lines were down, the federal radio repeaters were down, the cellphone towers had fallen, the internet and wifi were all down, and as a result, MILLIONS of dollars of helicopter sorties had to be flown to visually confirm the welfare of each and every service-member BEFORE ANY search and rescue missions could be flown.

I, initially had an appointment with the XO, however, was unable to reach him by any means. Even the gate guards at the base were unable to reach him because they are on different radios, different, incompatible frequencies from the Coast Guard personnel. So, I offered them my Gotenna devices. However, at the same time, another storm was brewing, a political firestorm that paralyzed the USCG from acquiring power or communications. The request from USCG to Tesla was seen by the administration as an ethical violation, an impropriety, a solicitation to a private vendor. Red tape and ineffective, cowardly leadership at the highest levels actually rebuked the Commanding Officer in a disaster area for trying to keep his base powered.

At that point USCG was paralyzed. They couldn’t accept the Gotenna emergency communication devices from a “vendor” (as they uncharitably described me — however, I was most decidedly not a vendor, not vested, no commercial motivation, no stock owernship, no vested interest, merely a volunteer, an officer of the Federal and State Courts in pro bono publico service). Their concern would be that if they accepted the devices, this would be exactly analogous to the Tesla situation. Over a home-brewed beer, we tried to creatively explore possible ways to gift these devices, to sell them privately for a $1, to trade them for a beer, to create a purchase order, for me to abandon or lose them outside the gate, or get Government services to purchase them directly from Gotenna and make them available to the base, to get a spouse to purchase them wholly separate from USCG personnel. All avenues failed. While Coast Guard insists that they maintained operational readiness, I can tell you… they, like everyone else, were paralyzed. Their fall-back encrypted comms devices were bulky, power hungry, unfamiliar to users, often forgotten at home or work, wholly incompatible with base security and other agencies and operating in simplex, non-relayed mode (with severely limited range due to the federal repeaters being down). The answer was in my hands.

We had 41 encrypted Gotenna devices that each act as their own repeaters, created with taxpayer funds by In-Q-Tel (IQT) the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, with millions invested from DOD, DOJ, DHS, FBI, and other federal agencies being loaned by an FBI-vetted Officer of the Federal Courts. Similarly, they had millions invested in solar panels… but no way to harness them. Even though a neighboring private solar farm had been wiped out (thus freeing up the protected hardware for inversion, regulation, and storage for purchase or rental until their solar panels could be replaced) the base command structure was paralyzed. Even though Tesla was generously donating these self-contained devices on the island- they couldn’t ask for or accept help. It was a cluster-fuck of red tape that effectively prevented a US Coast Guard base from acquiring power or communications.

A year ago, Javier Malave, now with Puerto Rico Science and Trust, created a partnership between Gotenna, Inc., the University of Puerto Rico (E-ship network) d/b/a PR_Reconnects and Starting Point, Inc. to raise approximately $20,000 (with Gotenna matching every dollar donated 1:1) to provide up to 300 satellite-backed Gotenna devices to provide emergency communications to the island’s “hundreds of thousands” hardest hit in the central mountainous regions and to help first-responders in the relief and rebuild efforts. The fundraiser was quickly fulfilled by 212 kind souls who donated funds. However, Javier Malave, PR_Reconnects, and Starting Point quickly went silent -unreachable even by partner Gotenna.

It’s now been a year, yet barely 16 (of the 300) permanent Gotenna relays have been established — all of them in San Juan, and conveniently extending out to Barranquitas, conveniently surrounding Javier’s home in the Palace of Versailles in Toa Alta and linking him and his family to the network in San Juan. While the goals of the fundraiser were to make these devices available to the public, none of the locations (other than the San Juan nodes) have been made public. It is therefore impossible for first-responders to leverage this critical national infrastructure. All attempts at bonafide requests for status updates from any of the partners have resulted in lies, bullshit aspirational “soon,” or attempts to change the goals of the fundraiser, them silencing whistle-blowers, deleting posts, suspending and then banning accounts for a thousand years. No accountability, no progress. Corruption.

First and crucial steps remain unfulfilled nearly a year later.

Puerto Rico is fundamentally broken — and like a child living in their parents’ basement, they will never mature to the point of self-sufficiency, sustainability, and independence while we continue to coddle them and support them with seemingly unlimited taxpayer funds. Anything given to them is not appreciated because it wasn’t earned with the sweat and labor of their own hands. While it’s noble to try to help, it does no good. Give them independence, let them build their own networks with the fruits of their own labor. Let them realize the failure of monopolistic PREPA, of corrupt contracts that prohibit common-sense harm mitigation. While this administration calls its response an “unsung success,” the reality is that it was an abject failure — an “embarrassment” as Admiral McRaven honestly assessed, even stopping its own military from taking steps to preserve life and maintain operational readiness. Perhaps we can earn Boricuas’ respect and friendship with the next administration and in the coming decades prove to be better brothers and sisters than a wayward parent buying forgiveness.

Political pressure has lead to the expedited and jooked stats claiming 99% of power and communications being “restored.” If nothing else, heed this warning- these power and communications lines were put up in a rushed manner and they are not robust. Even a light breeze or a minor tropical storm is going to result in Puerto Rico rapidly returning to the stone ages and thousands more casualties. Ropa viejas, a mangled mess of threads entwining everything, will be dipping into flooded streets and dangling from poles. Common-sense power backups providing self-sufficiency like the thousands of solar panels are hampered by an embarrassing administration which has hamstrung our military. Efforts to establish reliable backup communications are dashed by corruption and self-serving individuals without any effective checks or transparency; watchdogs afraid of blowing a whistle. The billions in disaster relief blown on putting up FEMA bureaucrats in fancy air conditioned waterfront hotels, villas, and mansions in Isla Verde with 3 square meals a day draining the hotel bars… while the people who were actually there to help, like Piratas Hurricane Relief, Black Flag Search and Rescue, Valor Response Team, Community Emergency Response Teams, and unaffiliated individual volunteers camped out in their cars and in tents in the thick of it — eating beans and lukewarm Medallas which were cheaper and more readily available than water.

Let capitalism, free market, and competition weed out corruption, weed out ineffective strategies, weed out liars, frauds, and disadvantageous monopolistic contracts. Step back and let them grow up. And FFS, can we get an administration that’s not an embarrassment- one that actually values leadership and empowers our military, one that doesn’t disenfranchise our Admirals and public servants?


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