The Food and Water Distribution Challenge and the EBT System in Puerto Rico

Flying over remote areas of Puerto Rico with the Tactivate team, a group of connectivity experts, the local government and the US Navy working to solve connectivity issues in rural food markets to get the EBT system online so food and water can be bought locally.

In every disaster there is a lifecycle. There is a time for immediate life saving response activities, which, include search and rescue, distribution of food and water and any other critical resources needed by the impacted population. There is also a natural point in this cycle when external aid becomes more detrimental than positively impactful. Holistically, the best thing that can be done for a heavily impacted region is to build indigenous capacity and to let the local economy heal itself. Unfortunately, the current paradigm, while incredibly well intentioned, pertaining to “aid” is predicated on donations — flooding the inflicted region with stuff. What is often not seen by many, other than those on the ground, is the capacity for the local population, with strategic support, to address and solve many of the primary challenges themselves. This reality of the actual situation is called “ground truth” and due to myriad reasons, is often not adequately conveyed to the public. Lets examine a particular case in regard to access to food and water in Puerto Rico as a mini case study.

Despite no power, generators fuel nightly revelry as the Puerto Rican people celebrate life per usual despite the challenging circumstances.

It has been over a month since Maria impacted the island and there are still major concerns in the public domain about relief supplies being distributed. There is still the perception that Puerto Rico needs “aid” in the form of supplies. While there is no denying significant issues with on island logistics, as well as political factors affecting response distribution efforts, the reality is, Walmart and Sams Clubs are open. In the more remote areas of the island like Orocovis or Barranquitas, the small local markets are also open, fully stocked and running off generators. There are eggs, milk, poultry and vegetables as well as bottled water (limited) on the shelves. While food and water are present in the more remote and impacted areas, it is not accessible to many due to the inability to use credit cards or to access cash through ATMs.

The Tactivate Team and strategic partners including Focused Mission, and the Puerto Rican Government field testing solutions to resolve EBT processing connectivity issues.

The EBT system (social assistance credit card), which roughly 45% of the population relies on is offline due to a lack of connectivity. In essence point of sale systems that take credit cards and EBT cards are non-functioning because there is no internet. So the real issue regarding food and water distribution, is in fact, a connectivity challenge. Its not aid distribution that is needed, but connectivity to get the stores back online which, will solve the “distribution problem.”

A satellite communications tech solution brought by Focused Mission in conjunction with Viasat to connect remote food markets powered by Goal Zero to get the EBT and credit card processing systems online.

These are the kind of challenges that need to be solved and they need to be addressed outside the confines of conventional disaster response approahes to ensure expediency in resolution. This is where an entrepreneurial approach to disaster response comes into play.

After spending a day in the field, and recognizing the issue of connectivity and the EBT problem, just two weeks ago, the Tactivate team notified everyone from the government of Puerto Rico, FEMA, the NGO community and the private sector to get resources moving on sourcing a solution. Two weeks later no real meaningful action had been taken so our team took the initiative to work with, and around the system to get a solution tested and deployed. It is important to realize that there are incredibly difficult bureaucracies to deal with and it is no one agencies or individuals fault that things move slowly. It is a systemic issue, which, is why there is a place for private sector solution engineering to help fill needs gaps until larger organizations can mobilize.

Luis Arocho, CIO of the Puerto Rican Government putting in the ground time to field test solutions in conjunction with a hybrid team of private sector, Federal and local resources brought together by Tactivate to address the EBT challenge.

With the CIO of Puerto Rico, The Offices of Family Services and the Government Telecommunications Regulatory Board, that oversees the EBT program, Focused Mission, and a payment processing firm, Accepta Payments, we flew out on a Navy Helicopter we organized through FEMA to conduct our field test. Two markets, one on the island of Culebra, and the other in Orocovis were successfully temporarily connected with the equipment brought to support the field test. Locals were able to use their EBT cards to make purchases for the first time since the storm hit. Since that time, 10 units have been purchased out of pocket which are being combined with three units brought to the table by Focused Mission who worked around logistical constraints using a currier to get the equipment onto island as quickly as possible. Tomorrow we fly out again as a collective force with the Puerto Rican CIO, the Office of Family Services, Focused Mission and the Tactivate team to begin installs to get the local food stores online.

Steve Birnbaum Director of Field Operations in Crisis Response for Tactivate, and a former member of the FEMA Innovation Team coordinating air assets for field tests.

This is an example of well intentioned people from within the local government, the private sector, the NGO community and the military all coming together in a solution focused manner. Resources and skills were pooled, and in a small way we are all working to fix a big problem. This is entrepreneurship at its best.

Sunday planning meeting with Tactivate, the Foundation for Puerto Rico, local entrepreneurs from Babson College, and representation from Special Operations Civil Affairs to discuss the EBT challenge as well as other overarching issues including water filtration. The Foundation for Puerto Ricos shared work space The Colaboratorio has become the central hub for NGO, entrepreneurial and private sector collaboration in Puerto Rico.

Solving problems in disaster zones requires familiarity with organizations like FEMA, an ability to interact with local populations to capture true needs, and the capacity to connect resources across operational spheres from the NGO, entrepreneurial, DOD and local political communities. These resources than must be brought to bear for local organizations with apresence and operating experience in the impacted areas. This last step ensures efficient and effective execution of initiatives and the capacity to sustain solutions put in place. In this case Steve Birnbaum, Head of Field Operations for Crisis Response with Tactivate, Luis Arocho, CIO of the Puerto Rican Government, the team at The Foundation for Puerto Rico, The Focused Mission crew in conjunction with ViaSat and the US Navy and FEMA all worked together to engineer a solution to the food and water distribution challenge in Puerto Rico. While it may not have all gone through conventional channels, things are moving in a positive direction.

True impact requires true collaboration. In this huddle are representatives from the Navy, Private sector and Pueto Rican government.

*Photo Credits to Mike Atwood: MadCapProject

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