The recovery, the governor, and the road ahead

Mass confusion, frustration, and discomfort remain going into three weeks of the wake of Typhoon Mawar’s May 24 destruction of Guam. And that’s just the home front. International wires are beginning to report how the government of Guam’s failure to bounce back effectively from Mawar has inadvertently rolled out a red carpet for America’s enemies to exploit the vulnerabilities that cascade and abound.

As we enter week three of the recovery, a dichotomy between the hard work of front liners versus the ineptitude of planners and leaders is becoming clearer, and restlessness is growing as quickly as patience is thinning. Some people are hungry, while GovGuam took a Memorial Day holiday before unpacking a warehouse full of food commodities. Some people are thirsty, while GovGuam fumbles between a boil-water notice from one regulatory agency and a conflicting statement that the water is just fine.

Amid the chaos of the response coordination, it is clear the governor failed to order the pre-typhoon staging of logistics and resources – backhoes, water buffaloes, mobile loud speakers, hand-held radios, walkie talkies.

Nearly half of residential homes remain without power, and hundreds – perhaps thousands (the reporting hasn’t been the greatest) – are living without running water and proper sanitation.

“We are hitting it. I’m so pleased with the government of Guam’s response, I have to say,” governor’s special assistant for military and federal affairs Carlotta Leon Guerrero said on a propaganda show she hosts with director of women’s affairs Jayne Flores. The Guam Daily Post yesterday exposed a scandal involving the government’s payment of public funds to host the show on Sorensen Media Group’s Newstalk K57. Sorensen is partly owned by the governor’s family.

Attorney General Douglas Moylan has announced his office in investigating the alleged corruption.

The race to restore power and water

The governor and her army of messaging misfits repeat the same tired refrain: ‘We’re doing great. We’re restoring power and water and we’re recovering faster than before.’

The ‘before’ they refer to is the recovery from Super Typhoon Pongsona, which decimated the island on December 8, 2002. It took an average of two to three months for Guam Power Authority to restore electricity to residents and businesses.

But it’s been more than 20 years. And in those 20 years, we – the suffering ratepayers and taxpayers – have invested more than $2 billion into the hardening of those systems.

The 20-year old benchmark brings little comfort to the afflicted. And neither does a governor who continually downplays the pace of recovery, dismissing the suffering her people plainly are expressing. 

“We’re listening; we’re hearing your frustrations. Everyone who doesn’t have power or water is frustrated, but you know what? Two weeks in, we’re actually doing pretty darn good, Guam. I think we can all give ourselves a pat on the back,” Ms. Flores said on the propaganda show.

Douglas B. Moylan, esq. (Photo courtesy of the Pacific Island Times)

Mr. Moylan is unimpressed. Actually, he’s “had it.”

“We are living like cavemen and women because of a cascade of government failures by the Consolidated Commission on Utilities and this administration. These officials were paid handsome salaries to have protected us from this cavalcade of fiascos. We are a laughing stock of the world that we experienced the exact same type of dry season super typhoon on May 21, 1976 (Pamela) and have learned nothing. From water, power, communications, financial transactions to basic fuel distribution. All civilized public welfare systems controlled by this government failed miserably. We are three weeks out and people are still suffering, living on subsistence existence with a $1 billion government that just blew our cash reserves giving themselves a 22 percent sustained and permanent pay increase across the board whilst the private sector must bear the burden for such a financially reckless and shortsighted decision.” – Douglas Moylan

As of the publication of this story, 56.5 percent of residential have had their power restored.

Ginger Cruz, a former longtime journalist turned businesswoman and disaster reconstruction expert throughout the globe, was interviewed last week by a duo of independent journalists on a Hawaii site and said her company, Mantid, has long been pushing for GPA and the federal government to invest in the $6 billion needed to move the transmission and distribution systems underground.

Ms. Cruz has a more realistic, ear-to-the-ground description of the situation. “The suffering has been intense,” she told ThinkTech Hawaii. “The typhoon destroyed a lot of the infrastructure that had to be quickly rebuilt. Twenty years of advancements have really made a difference for the people of Guam, so the recovery is going faster, but of course not fast enough for the people who don’t have water and power. But there have been a lot of challenges.”

The $6B push for underground power lines, and its implications for national security

Ginger Cruz

Ms. Cruz, who has global experience in the reconstruction of war-torn countries, mainly in the Middle East, spoke to the vulnerabilities Guam is exposed to with a hovering China before Craig Hooper’s piece for Forbes this past weekend.

In the 30 minute interview, Ms. Cruz communicated more about the disaster recovery effort than the nearly 50 news releases issued by GovGuam’s Joint Information Center to date, touching concisely on issues from the power system to homelessness, and even spewing data about foliage, ocean runoff recovery, and Guam’s building codes. Her focus, however, was on the power system.

“Most of the power poles are cement,” the former journalist and spokeswoman for former Gov. Carl Gutierrez said, recounting the past two decades of improvements since the destruction of Paka, Chata’an, and Pongsona that forced GovGuam to replace wooden power poles with cement ones.

“We’d love to put them underground,” she said, speaking of the power system’s transmission and distribution lives. “There’s a movement we’re trying to push for. If you look at the price of one aircraft carrier, it’s $10 billion. If you look at putting all of Guam’s power infrastructure underground, it’s $6 billion. And, if you’re talking about a long term investment, with payoff for the Navy, for the Air Force, for the people of Guam, for everybody, doing that in the long term will mean a lot.”

“There’s now a lot of discussion for the climate resiliency of Guam, not as a tree-hugging, climate – you know – global warming issue, but as an actual issue of national security, because you cannot have the critical infrastructure for our main communications space base our marine, submarine, air force bases going down for days or even longer because of something like a typhoon, which we know will happen now that we’ve got an El Nino weather pattern,” she said.

“It’s difficult. It’s challenging. People are still hurting,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s an island that also knows how to come together and how to help neighbors.”

Ms. Cruz, who is from Guam, counted her blessings that the typhoon did not damage her home, but it did blow in the windows of her neighbor’s home.

“I took her in, and her dog in for a few days,” she said.

Ginger Cruz appears to feel our pain more than Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero does. And the visibility of the governor has become an issue, with some drawing parallels of her seeming absence in the midst of recovery to former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s government run from the Hyatt as his city suffered post-Katrina.

A governor with a different recovery management style

Sen. Jesse Lujan, in an in-studio interview with Kandit alongside Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio’s chief advisor Stephanie Flores asked Ms. Flores why the administration has not enlisted the leadership of its, arguably, most effective disaster management asset: former Gov. Carl Gutierrez.

Mr. Gutierrez, now the general manager of the Guam Visitors Bureau, was the governor who led Guam through recovery from three super typhoons: Paka in 1997, Chata’an in July 2002, and Pongsona in December 2002.

Ms. Flores said Mr. Gutierrez is tending to his part of the recovery effort, but that Ms. Leon Guerrero clearly is in charge, albeit executing with a very different disaster recovery management style than her predecessors.

“She’s a numbers person, a financial person,” Ms. Flores said of the governor.

“A lot of the more operational details has really been the lieutenant governor,” she said. Her assertion is backed up scores of photos on the governor’s media pages of Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio in the field and at disaster recovery centers and food distribution sites directing the recovery and helping people. Absent in most of those photos is the governor. “You see him out with the crews, you see him at the debris sites. You see him where things are moving.”

“Where is the governor?” Mangilao resident Linda Meno asked Sen. Chris Barnett. “We’re hungry.”

“Their management styles are very complementary,” Ms. Flores said of the governor and lieutenant governor. “He’s more operational, she’s more financial, making sure the resources are there.”

The day after that interview, Ms. Leon Guerrero was seen in a video visiting Ms. Meno asking whether she was hungry and how she could help her. Ms. Flores, in that interview, promised the governor would be more visible in the community, and a day later, she delivered.

But was it for show? Or is the governor finally realizing the calming effect she can have by simply feeling the pain of her people and being with them through these times?

The mass rollout of federal assistance

Following the interview was a massive ramp up of federal aid from various agencies, and a more public effort by the Leon Guerrero administration to explain its efforts to get more federal resources to affected Guamanians.

But even some of these federal programs have hit major public relations snags with residents. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration have been pushing Guamanians to apply for disaster relief assistance. Hundreds of residents, however, have taken to social media to complain their applications have been “denied” by FEMA, or that amounts made eligible to them are woefully below the value of what they believe they have lost due to Mawar.

FEMA’s public affairs officer on the ground, Veronica Verde, has explained that residents may be mistaken about the message they receive from FEMA. These letters of “eligibility” are not “denials,” but letters informing residents they need to submit some further proof or documentation in order for the process of aid to more forward.

“Our goal is to get to a ‘yes,'” she said.

But that message is not resonating. The news releases from the JIC have been of little assistance or comfort to residents, with officious language that remains vague and unclear, leaving residents and the media with even more questions; questions that take a while, if ever, to be answered by the JIC.

As FEMA disaster aid hopes have waned, the Leon Guerrero administration has been able to report better news for the underprivileged, unemployed, and underemployed.

By Monday night, everyone who received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as ‘food stamps’) assistance in May will receive an additional 50 percent of that amount in their accounts. So, for example, if you received $1,000 in SNAP benefits in May, then some time after 7 p.m., Monday, June 12, another $500 will be loaded into your account.

The administration’s Department of Labor also has announced the governor’s submission of an application to the federal government to open up a Disaster Unemployment Assistance pipeline of $26 million in federal funding.

If that is approved, then qualified Guamanians will receive about $350 in weekly unemployment paychecks retroactive to May 28, 2023, through November 25, 2023.

The application for the relief funds calls to mind another factor: What about the $200+ million in pandemic-era funding the governor is keeping in the bank?

Former Congressman Michael San Nicolas has raised this point, asking again why the governor is not providing direct relief to the people by using even a portion of these funds.

The road to economic recovery

Mary Rhodes, the longtime president of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association, is keeping her eye on lessons to be learned, ways to improve what should have been improved long ago, and how and when tourism will rebound.

“It won’t take years, as some have said,” she said. “We already have bookings for August.”

She has shared with Homeland Security Advisor Esther Aguigui and Civil Defense administrator her thoughts on the need “to document lessons learned and begin the long term planning with the government to harden our systems and discuss the gaps with private sector included.”

That ‘private sector’ inclusion in the recovery coordination process clearly was lacking, with essential support functions that included industry experts in tourism, fuel supply, telecommunications, etc. gutted by a previous homeland security advisor in a previous administration.

GHRA has been an active partner in the recovery process. The organization, which umbrellas most of the island’s hotels and many of its restaurants, has provided almost-daily updates to its members about the recovery, including information on aid for businesses.

Among the chief concerns Ms. Rhodes has had with the recovery process has been the conflicting messages from the government about potable water.

On one hand, Guam Waterworks Authority officials have said no contaminants have been found in the water. On the other hand, Guam Environmental Protection Agency issued a vague notice about bad water. Back to the first hand: GWA swiped back with a correction to the GEPA notice that GWA water should not have been included in the GEPA notice.

What many businesses have been left with is an inability to operate very basic services and sell basic products emanating from the water supply until a third agency – the Department of Public Health and Social Services Division of Environmental Health – conducts inspections.

The JIC has hardly provided an explanation, stating the reason DEH has to inspect a business’s water supply is due to a non-mandatory boil water notice, but never answering the question: What authority does DEH have to prevent these businesses from operating these services and selling these products?

DPHSS director Arthur San Agustin has ghosted this question altogether. He read Kandit’s question, but never responded.

In the meantime, businesses are waiting. And as they wait, the bills pile up and their once-employed employees wait for the day they can return to work.

The management of this disaster has been exactly what the recovery effort is supposed to be coordinating against: a disaster. Thus far.

There are signs of improvement. The line crews and the front liners are working. Many of these services are operating 24 hours a day, without a break. The obvious gap here is in leadership.

And even without leadership, perhaps Ms. Cruz said it best: It’s the resiliency of the people of Guam that counts most. We are helping each other. We are rebuilding, with or without the help of the governor.


  • Alan San Nicolas

      06/12/2023 at 6:16 AM

    Matto pues mapos si mawar ya tai elekrisidat yu. Kada pakyo (ira) I lugat hu, uttmo. Finoña I taotao sanlagu, ” nothing new”. Kao guaha na en hungok I kantan Johnny Sablan ” Malofan Hao”. AFAÑELOS, ESTA DESPUES

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