Gilsinan: It strikes me that what a lot of these things have in common is you’re running into a situation where you have this enormous problem, and I’m curious about how you even begin to conceptualize it. What is the first step there? Or what is the first step when you’re in Puerto Rico trying to deliver electrical poles, but the ports aren’t even functioning?
Semonite: Today, right now—and these numbers change every day—we’re building 27 different facilities and we are creating 15,500 beds. In the next week, we expect to put in about another 14 facilities and potentially up to another 4,600 beds.
We have designed a bunch of facilities, and then given those designs to states and cities. I flew into Miami last week, and I met with the mayor of Miami and the governor of Florida. And my guys said, “We probably need to build out the Miami convention center, and this is about 450 beds.” We needed about ’til the 27th of April to get that one done. There was probably about 21 days we needed.
The governor looked at his medical guys and said, “When’s the peak day?” And their medical guys said April 21. And then I told my guys, “Well, then we’re going to be done by the 20th. You don’t have 21 days. Now you have 14 days to get it done. So now go back and come up with a plan.”
The whole point here is that we don’t have time for the perfect solution.
Gilsinan: Are the projects going fast enough to handle the need?
Semonite: It is on all the ones we’re building. But let’s assume that the peak for [a] particular city is the 24th of April, and the 24th was the day all along [when] we thought that a lot of these might peak. Today I’m checking, it’s the 16th, so if we need 10 days to build, and [a] mayor hasn’t made a decision, then when we go in, we say we don’t have the ability anymore to do it in six days.
I don’t want to get anybody nervous or threatened; I just want to be able to be honest. There’s some things you can do really, really fast. You can fly in a thousand people to a city if they’re really short on doctors and nurses and have them there in probably 48 hours. Well, you can’t go into a convention center and build 3,000 beds overnight.
Read: An unhealthy military is struggling to fight COVID-19
Gilsinan: You were in Iraq; you were responding to hurricanes. Have you ever seen anything like this?
Semonite: Yes, I have. This is not something simple, where you have only one or two variables. A good example is Puerto Rico. All the electricity, all of the generating plants and power plants were in the south of Puerto Rico. All the people live in the north, San Juan. Puerto Rico is an island. So the only way to get the electricity from the south to the north is to go over a mountain range [with] all of those power poles, 66,000.
It’s all complicated—same thing in Iraq. As much as we tried to get the electricity on, all the power plants ran off of oil. All the refineries were blown up, or they were taken out. Although you might have the power plant up and running, it’s kind of like having a gas station go with no gas.