In the midst of the collapse of the island’s electrical system after Hurricane Fiona, the Bureau for Emergency and Disaster Management (NMEAD, in Spanish) failed to comply with the Essential Communicators Act, which compels that agency to facilitate access to fuel for broadcasters, who found it hard to fill their backup electric generators with diesel.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized three radio stations to suspend their transmissions from September 27 to 30 due to power service interruptions: W27DZ-D (Mayagüez), WOST (Mayagüez) and WWKQ-LD (Quebradillas). The FCC reported that 10 stations went off the air on September 20. Others reduced their on-air time due to the difficulty in supplying their generators, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) found.
“It was difficult to get diesel, something that did not happen during María,” said Julia Flores Ortiz, one of the administrative managers of Uno Radio Group, which includes the stations NotiUno 630 AM, Salsoul 99.1 FM, Fidelity 95.7 FM, HOT102, Radio Tiempo 1430 AM and Radio Leo 1170 AM. She also did not find all the diesel she needed for the station WZAR 101.9 FM in Ponce through a single supplier.
In San Germán, the owner of WSOL 1090 AM, Lucy Rivera de Cardona, turned off her power generator every two hours to ration diesel when she saw the long lines at the gas stations.
“It got to a point when we got scared,” Rivera de Cardona said about the fuel shortage. “There was no [diesel] anywhere,” she said.
The programming director of WERR 104.1 FM in Utuado, Hernán Pantoja Cruz, said his station had no electricity for seven days. He managed to fill the power generator tank twice, but the second time he was unable to get diesel and had to look for alternatives, a task that took him a full day.
“When the rumor and the news began to circulate that they were having problems with fuel supply, specifically diesel, I myself called the CAT5 people and they let us know that it was complicated, that they had to say no to practically all clients,” Pantoja recalled, referring to the company that offers the service of transporting fuel to places that are considered critical infrastructure.
They broke the law
Act 39 on Essential Communicators was signed in 2019 after the experience of Hurricane María in 2017, when the electrical and telecommunications systems collapsed and only some radio stations were able to continue their broadcasts or resume them soon enough. They became the only sources of information available to Puerto Rico residents.
The Essential Communicators Act has among its objectives to facilitate access to fuel for radio broadcasters, telecommunications operators, as well as written and digital media during an emergency, and imposes on the NMEAD the obligation to maintain communication with the media and notify them of the designated establishments where they can purchase fuel, among other supplies.
“The Bureau for Emergency and Disaster Management will have the responsibility of publishing and notifying radio and television stations, as well as the written press, the establishments designated for the acquisition of goods and supplies,” the law states. “The Emergency Operations Center (COE, in Spanish) will have the responsibility of integrating into its communication plan the designation of a liaison with radio and television stations, as well as the written press,” it states.
Neither of the two mandates were fully complied after Hurricane Fiona hit September 18.
NMEAD Spokeswoman Mariana Cobián Rodríguez was the person designated by the Emergency Operations Center as liaison with the media. Cobián told the CPI that “it wasn’t necessary” to designate or publish establishments available to buy diesel because “most businesses continued to operate before, during, and after the hurricane.”
However, that statement contrasts with the experience of government agencies and public corporations having a hard time supplying their power generators with diesel, such as the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) to keep their water pumps on.
Cobián Rodríguez also said she was designated as a liaison between the COE and the media, but the truth is that it is one of her regular duties as director of communications for the NMEAD.
Puerto Rico Broadcasters Association President Alan Corales Valle said that during one of his visits during a press conference about the hurricane at the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency (COR3), he was introduced to a “man” to whom he should convey any need during the emergency. Corales Valle said he did not remember his name.
NMEAD Interim Commissioner Nino Correa once called Corales Valle during hurricane preparations to invite him to the COR3 on behalf of the association, which has 69 member stations. No information or communication on the issue of fuel supply came up during that call, Corales Valle said.
Diesel was hard to get
According to the purpose statement of the legislation signed in May 2019, the Legislative Assembly sought a statute that would guarantee “access to the necessary supplies so that Puerto Ricans are always informed in the event of any emergency or natural disaster.”
The engineering director of Uno Radio Group, Oscar Vega Rivera, said it was hard for his suppliers to fill their tanker trucks with diesel at the refineries.
Uno Radio Group radio stations that had no power on October 6, included WMIO FM 102.3 (Cabo Rojo), WUNO 630 AM (Dorado) and WFID-FM 95.7 (Aguas Buenas).
When the CPI asked him if they had gotten priority to obtain diesel, Vega Rivera said they waited “like everybody else.”
Despite the obligation that the NMEAD had to inform them about the places where they could find fuel and supplies, Vega Rivera insisted they were not told of any plan to get diesel and guarantee the transmission of radio stations during the emergency.
He also said the NMEAD did not contact Uno Radio Group stations during the emergency.
Corales Valle said he shared phone numbers of fuel suppliers with association members who requested them.
In Cabo Rojo, the vice president of WZCL-LP 98.1 FM, Alfredo Santiago Saez, said he was not approached by the agency during the emergency. His station had no electricity since September 18. Almost a month later, on October 16, the station was on the air, as they announced through their Facebook page.
Because the station depended on official information, Santiago Saez contacted the mayor of Cabo Rojo and LUMA to get information when power would be restored at the station. However, he got no response from either of them.
In Ponce, the administrator of Católica Radio, Manuel Vega González, said he too was not contacted by the NMEAD during the emergency. The station had no power service from September 15 to October 7.
Even though there was no communication, as the law mandates, the Executive Director of the Broadcasters Association, Félix Bonnet Álvarez, and the president of that organization were satisfied with the NMEAD.
“Right now, when you usually get an automatic complaint about the emergency, we haven’t received anything,” Bonnet Álvarez said. “On the contrary, the comments have been that the Emergency Management and the radio stations handled the emergency well.”
Corales Valle said “I have the best communication with Nino [Correa] that I’ve had or that we’ve had with the past directors there.”
When Senate Bill 1220 proposing the Essential Communicators Act, penned by former Sens. Miguel A. Laureano Correa, José O. Pérez Rosa, Eric Correa Rivera, and Luis D. Muñiz Cortés was discussed in public hearings, there were deponents who suggested amendments that, had they been incorporated, could have facilitated the radio industry’s access to diesel.
On behalf of the Broadcasters Association, Eduardo Rivero Albino, president of Media Power Group, proposed that a regional suppliers plan, with their location and contact information, be added into the bill prior to the hurricane season. However, his suggestion was not included. It was established that the agency would only be responsible for revealing the designated establishments where to buy goods and services, such as fuel.
After Fiona, there was no distributor available to get diesel for their radio stations in the south, so they had to look for it in the west, Rivero Albino told the CPI.
“When you don’t address things that are discretionary, who will determine how it will be done?”, he asked. “We believed there should be well-defined goals.”
Attorney and former Rep. Victor García San Inocencio said that, in legislative terms, Puerto Rico fails in approving abstract legislation, with no legislative follow-up after its implementation or a regulation or plan requirement, which is never approved, as in the case of the Essential Communicators Act.
The attorney described the Essential Communicators Act as “legislation that has no teeth.” “The purpose of legislation is to make things happen, to get things done,” he said.
Weak Emergency Management
The president of the Emergency Managers and Security Professionals Association, Nazario Lugo Burgos, said compliance with this law should fall on a specific agency, such as the Telecommunications Bureau. The NMEAD should limit itself to helping coordinate, which is its responsibility as a government entity, not to respond to an emergency.
The former director of the NMEAD added that the agency has regional offices that, in the event of an emergency, could help the private sector. Lugo Burgos suggested dealing with any future emergency through the area offices. He pointed out though that they are practically inoperative because all the information is channeled at the central level.
“Unfortunately, for some reason that we still don't understand, the structure of the Emergency Management Bureau was totally disrupted,” he said about its centralization. “The Department of Public Safety has dismantled the Emergency Management Bureau.”
Luis Joel Méndez González is a member of Report for America.
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