THE MAGAZINE

After the Flood

By John Barham

Lessons Learned

While the most recent response was a vast improvement over the way the government reacted in 1985, some first responders and businesses still point out problems with the way this disaster was handled.

One criticism is that the government did not respond quickly enough in terms of advance warnings and evacuations.

Rincón, like many in Villahermosa, says official warnings came too late and gave no indication that the flooding would be so severe.

A foreign official at the Red Cross International Federation says, “We could tell the situation was getting bad well before the government started warning people. We could get our warnings just by monitoring the NOAA Web site and watching the Weather Channel. There was no mystery or surprise about what would happen, that there would be a lot of flooding.”

A government enquiry found that six official alerts were given, the first on October 13, two weeks before flooding began. But few paid any attention. The federal water and electric utilities allowed water to rise to critical levels at the Peñitas dam despite the warnings.

The problem may be the way alerts were worded. “If one looks at the bulletins from the national meteorological service, they never said anything about the magnitude of the [forecasted] rains,” says Víctor Magaña Rueda, a researcher at Mexico’s National Autonomous University’s atmospheric sciences center. “By tradition, it errs on the safe side, using ranges that are very wide. Before Tabasco, it just warned people that it would rain a lot, giving a rainfall range of 70-400 millimeters.”

Another criticism concerned how slowly basic services were brought back online as the flooding eased. Private sector managers say they were let down by the poor performance of government-owned utilities and private telecommunications networks.

Companies had most of their IT infrastructure—PCs, monitors, servers, cabling, and telephone gear—destroyed by the floodwaters. When the waters receded, they were able to bring in replacement equipment and hook it up to corporate networks, but they could not get operations fully up and running until power and communications systems returned to normal.

One cellular carrier’s main transmission center in Villahermosa was almost completely submerged. Comisión Federal de Electricidad, the government-owned electric company, cut off supplies to the city for safety reasons. It only restored partial power days after the rain stopped and the waters began to recede. This hampered the ability of banks and other critical businesses to resume normal service.

The head of security at one Mexican company says, “Avantel, which is our cellphone carrier, and Telmex, which is the landline provider, were underwater, literally, and they could not provide service even once we were back and ready to operate. So what kind of contingency planning do they have?”

Poor communications made it hard to reach out to staff, says Juan Carlos Camacho Martínez, head of physical security and civil protection at Citibank in Mexico City. “The immediate priority was to locate our employees in Villahermosa. We needed to make sure everyone was okay, see who needed help, maybe to rescue them from their homes or to provide food and clothing.”

Not all the blame rests with the government or major utilities. Private companies other than banks had few plans in place. They had to improvise their responses and took longer to recover.

“The roads from Mexico City out to the Yucatán peninsula were cut for days, and we could not get through. We redirected our trucks through the south, which disrupted deliveries and increased delays,” says Jorge Uranga Valdez, corporate security coordinator at Mexican-owned logistics company Unipack. Fortunately, Villahermosa is not a major economic center, and Unipack only operates a distribution center and a warehouse in the city.

Carlos Pineda, a Unipack employee, says, “I’d say our emergency plan was pretty focused on preserving our IT systems but that was as far as it went. I’d say that apart from that, we basically made it up as we went along. We were improvising the whole time.”

It was especially important for Unipack to recover quickly, because it had a critical logistical role to play. It had to be ready to distribute some of the emergency supplies flowing in from Mexico City and the rest of the country. To that end, as soon as the roads were open, a group of Unipack workers was sent from Mexico City to help local employees. They rescued those who were cut off by the water or who needed help in obtaining basic supplies. Once their immediate needs were met and missing employees had been located, Unipack workers began cleaning up their offices and warehouse.

A clear lesson from the most recent incident was that companies need to audit their suppliers and service providers more carefully when they claim to be able to provide service rapidly after an emergency, says Walter M. Farrer, corporate security manager at 3M Mexico.

Citibank’s Camacho says it also now recognizes the need to better analyze what it will need to have on hand to handle a disaster. “We didn’t have any boats in Villahermosa. That seems obvious now. We have boats at other locations, but not in Villahermosa.”

A postcrisis analysis of lessons learned carried out for Hugo Raúl Montes Campos, the bank’s regional executive director for security, included the following recommendations: The bank should ensure that its Villahermosa branches be equipped with a launch, four-wheel drive vehicles, and individual first-aid kits for employees. The bank’s medical department should improve its emergency health support, such as providing immunizations for staff. The bank should also improve the resilience of its communications network as well, since its Villahermosa branches all relied on a single carrier.

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