The power of public affairs after a disaster

  • Published
  • By Capt. David J. Murphy
  • 81st Training Wing
It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday and I just finished physical training with my office. I checked my work cell phone and realized I missed a call. I called the number back to find it was a representative from Air Education and Training Command public affairs. I was told to start packing for a short-notice deployment. The next day I was on a plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico, tasked with being part of the joint media operations center supporting the joint force land component commander supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

I’ve been deployed multiple times in my 18-year career, and in each instance the deployment was something I had time to plan for. This was the first time I’d ever had to deploy within 24 hours. Heck, even when I worked as a flight commander for the 1st Combat Camera Squadron in Charleston, South Carolina, and I’d been on a six-hour stand by to deploy at a moment’s notice, I never actually had to deploy. It was a rush to get ready for the deployment, and I owe a fair bit of thanks to my PA team at the office and the unit deployment managers here for helping me get ready so quickly.

Seeing Puerto Rico in person, after watching news reports of the devastation, was eerie and heartbreaking. The city looked like it’d been through the washer and dryer cycle at a laundromat. Trees were down everywhere, stop lights were twisted and turned, buildings looked ravaged and beaten and almost every single sign had some sort of damage. If you’ve ever seen a superhero movie where the hero and villain fight each other and blast through buildings and destroy infrastructure, San Juan looked like it’d been through the aftermath of that kind of fight. Additionally, the buildings and streets were dark day and night because most of the island had no power.

I reported to the San Juan Convention Center, which was turned into the disaster-relief headquarters for FEMA, the Defense Department and the Puerto Rican government. It was the key focal point for all activities related to the recovery operation. I met with my team lead and immediately dove into the act of providing PA support.

The first week was challenging because we were honestly just trying to define our roles and responsibilities. It didn’t help that the team grew exponentially every day. By the end of the first week we went from a team of less than a dozen to nearly 60. We represented every service, rank and job specialty. I worked with the U.S. Army’s 24th Press Camp Headquarters, 55th Combat Camera, 82nd Airborne Division, the U.S. Air Force’s 1st Combat Camera Squadron and Space Command, sailors from the U.S. Navy’s USNS Comfort and other ships, and a collection of Marines and Coast Guardsmen from multiple bases. This was the first, real-world, completely joint, disaster response mission I’d ever been involved in.

My PA job changed multiple times during the two weeks I supported the mission. I started out as an operations officer, creating the daily briefing slide used to inform the JFLCC, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, about the PA themes and messages of the day, provide him a few photos and inform him of the previous and next day’s events. I was able to sit in one of the commander’s update briefings, and the amount of information the commander processed was immense. I would see slides filled to the brim with information, some could easily be called an “eye chart” and while I would be unable to process most of it, the general knew about everything being presented and could zero down to any specific detail necessary.

Eventually, I was assigned to be the PA officer for U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Sharpy, the JFLCC deputy commander in charge of air operations. Sharpy wanted to engage with the media and wanted me to help tell the Air Force story. I started by first getting to know Sharpy and learned how he spoke, acted and processed information. In order to be a good PA, one needs to understand how their boss thinks.

Once I grasped Sharpy’s thought process and understood his role and its importance to the mission, I began to set up interviews with the media. I set up 14 interviews, mostly with local media, but also with a few stateside and international agencies. Sharpy was interviewed on radio, television, via streaming platforms, on written platforms like newspapers and websites, over the phone and Skype. I’ve worked with media in the past, but I’ve never engaged with as many different platforms and companies as I had during this one event.

The biggest difference between media relations at Keesler vs. Puerto Rico is the importance of radio. It should be understood that a vast majority of the territory was, and still is, without electricity, cable, phone and internet in addition to being without running water. Furthermore, some areas are completely isolated. That being said, radio was the only way some of these areas received any information about the status of repair and reconstruction going on, which made it become very important to engage with these platforms. Where in the U.S., radio is seen as more of an afterthought when compared to television, web and print, here, in this situation, it was the primary means by which to communicate to a local audience.

In addition to providing PA services to Sharpy, I also worked to highlight the Air Force’s mission. The Army dominated the news because the main story that many news agencies wanted covered, and that FEMA prioritized, dealt with the delivery of commodities directly to the people, the restoration of power, fuel delivery and medical care. The Air Force is vital in all those aspects because the majority of people, cargo and commodities was, and continues to be, brought in by Air Force aircraft such as C-17 Globemaster IIIs, C-130 Hercules and C-5 Galaxies.

Showcasing these stories is not only important for the Air Force, but important for our stakeholders, which are the American people both in Puerto Rico and stateside. As PAs, we provide content that commanders and leaders can use to demonstrate and highlight the good things we’re doing to support the relief and recovery effort.

I worked to bring our teams photojournalists and broadcasters to the four flightlines that were reopened and operated by members of the 821st Contingency Response Group, 621st Contingency Response Wing. These Airmen are tasked with deploying anywhere in the world within 12 hours and are able to set up a fully operational flightline within days of arriving. In most cases they are used to setting up flightlines in austere locations, but in this case they worked to reopen the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, as well as airports in Ponce, Aguadilla and Ceiba. Additionally, I worked to showcase the cargo delivery mission, which will be the primary means by which goods come into the territory until the ports are fully restored and able to accept goods via ship.

All this helps me explain the purpose of PA in a post-disaster environment. We work to paint a picture of what the U.S. military is doing to support humanitarian relief efforts like this. Sure, we work with media to help amplify that story, and they do a great job of reaching audiences that we can’t reach or can’t reach as well, but we also document and tell our own story. There are so many stories to tell after a disaster and so many stories worth telling and the media can’t devote time to every one of them. We cover our own stories to ensure our story is told and that the American people and the world understand that we are working to make a difference.

We also document to provide historical record. The destruction this storm wrought and humanitarian crisis created is unlike anything many of the people I worked with in Puerto Rico had ever seen. Service members and civilians I talked to, some of whom have been in the military for 30 years and been a part of multiple disaster relief events, had never seen anything like what was happening in Puerto Rico. It was truly an event of historic proportions, and as such required the skilled work of true PA professionals who know how to not only tell that story, but also know how to broadcast it.

This has truly been a rewarding and educational experience. I’ve gained so much insight and perspective by working with my fellow PAs from all different services and working with my counterparts in FEMA. The recovery effort in Puerto Rico is going to be a long and expensive one, but I have great hope in the service members, federal employees, volunteers and most importantly the Puerto Ricans themselves in being able to bring their territory back its former glory. My experience working side-by-side with these fellow American citizens have showcased people who are extremely resilient, resourceful, hardworking and thankful for the support the DoD and FEMA are providing.

Too many times I’ve watched the results of a disaster reported on television and not been able to really do anything to help in the recovery effort besides, perhaps, donating money. This time, though, I had the opportunity to actually contribute, in some small way, to the overall effort and I’ve been thankful for the opportunity. What I’d like everyone reading this to remember is that although the news cycles move on and other stories grab headlines, there are more than three million American citizens working to recover from one of the worst natural disasters this decade and we should all strive to do what we can to provide them our support.