ELP alumnus responds in native Puerto Rico

The NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security Executive Leaders Program proved its worth for Henry Comas as he spent five months in Puerto Rico as the FEMA Joint Field Office Lead for U.S. Housing and Urban Development.

Comas completed the program in 2016. The ELP aims to enhance the capacity of senior leaders in identifying and resolving homeland security challenges while furthering alumni networking among the nation’s local, tribal, state, federal government, and private sector homeland security officials. He notably found the media training offered during ELP in which participants enter into a mock press conference and receive feedback from NPS-CHDS experts.

ELP grad Henry Comas, center, huddles with his HUD colleagues Nelson Bregon, left, and Cesar Garcia in Puerto Rico. (Contributed photo) 

“The ELP truly prepared me for my role in Puerto Rico,” said Comas, currently back on regular duty in New York. “I can’t say enough about it. Sitting in that room in class with some top officials nationally and subject matter experts, a lot of that rubbed off on me.”

Comas deployed to his native Puerto Rico in October and would intermittently work there for the next five months. He put his familiarity with the government and culture to good use.

“I understood the framework of Puerto Rico government, especially the Department of Housing,” Comas said. “This was more of a mission from the heart. It wasn’t just a job. Given the opportunity, I would still be there. It was about helping my fellow brethren in their new normal.”

Specifically, Comas wanted to help Puerto Rico navigate the maze of housing alternatives after the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. More than 70,000 homes were destroyed, and roughly 250,000 were severely damaged. While home ownership is common, many of the structures are owner-built and sometimes lack proper documentation.

Comas oversees Mass Care Housing as well as media relations under FEMA’s Emergency Support Function system. For housing, one of HUD’s disaster tools is the uses of Community Development Block Grants – Disaster Relief Supplemental to fund local services and works with its federal partners to develop a strategy to support the state in helping its residents rebuild their dwellings. He represented HUD at intergovernmental meetings and supervised HUD volunteer staff at 67 Disaster Recovery Centers while depopulating HUD Clients from 24 disaster shelters and FEMA Temporary Shelter Assistance (TSA) hotels

The ELP classroom that brings together diverse private and public sector professions was helpful in conversing with different agencies that may have different bureaucratic speak.

“We worked with our programs and with FEMA programs for providing assistance” Comas said. “We don’t have all the assets or answers, so it’s about layering different funds and collaborating with our partners to provide strategy and unified approach to support Puerto Rico, in coordination and delivery of our federal resources. The challenge is we all speak different languages and each agency has its own culture. One of the major challenges is coming together and being on the same page.”

HUD ultimately allocated $10.2 billion for Puerto Rico for housing programs and another plus $8.3 billion for mitigation measures. The territorial government plans how to spend those moneys.

HUD isn’t the first agency that first comes to mind, but Comas’ job is centered on disaster management and recovery. When he’s not tackling historical disasters, Comas serves as executive subject matter expert in emergency management and also oversees Continuity of Operations Planning (COOP). He is FEMA certified COOP practitioner and Master Exercise Practitioner.

Nevertheless, his experience provided lessons for crisis management.

“What I learned about executive leadership during a crisis is that you don’t have all the answers,” Comas recalled. You have to rely on staff and the people you’re partnering with. You need to be calm and lead by example.”

NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series on how NPS-CHDS alumni respond to the world’s gravest disasters. Please share your story by emailing Strategic Communications Director Heather Issvoron at hissvora@nps.edu.