Trump administration surges military assets to Puerto Rico amid growing crisis
In the first six days after the hurricane made landfall here, the Navy had deployed just three ships, citing concerns that Puerto Rico’s ports were too damaged to accommodate numerous large vessels. But harrowing reports of isolated U.S. citizens struggling in the heat without electricity and running low on food and water have now spurred the Pentagon to throw resources into the relief effort even though they haven’t been specifically requested by territorial officials.
The more robust approach includes the deployment of the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship that has responded to other natural disasters. The Pentagon also has assigned an Army general as point person for the humanitarian crisis: Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim, the deputy commanding general of U.S. Army North. He will coordinate operations and assess what other resources are needed, defense officials said.
“Obviously, what we asked for and what they sent was not enough for a storm that impacted every town in Puerto Rico from north to south and east to west,” Ramon Rosario, spokesman for Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, said Wednesday in the San Juan convention center, the headquarters for the intergovernmental recovery effort.
Rosario said the governor on Tuesday asked President Trump for more help for the devastated island, including more military personnel.
“If they send 1,000, we’ll take it,” Rosario said. “If they send 10,000, we’ll take it.”
Puerto Rican officials said 10 military vessels are en route to the island and that half should arrive within 48 hours. A ship with 262,000 barrels of fuel arrived Tuesday for distribution to gas stations across the island.
Additional aid cannot come soon enough for Rafael Surillo, the mayor of Yabucoa, a town on the island’s southeast coast, in the area where Maria’s eye — and its harshest winds — made landfall on Sept. 20. Surillo came to the capital city Wednesday to pick up a satellite phone the government had promised.
Like many towns across the island, Yabucoa was nearly completely on its own during the week after the hurricane hit, without power or any means of reaching out for help.
“We have had no communication with the central government,” Surillo said.
The National Guard arrived Tuesday with relief supplies that Surillo plans to distribute to 2,000 families in his municipality. He’s most concerned about getting medicine, insulin and oxygen to those most vulnerable as Yabucoa struggles with austerity.
“There’s no municipal government right now,” he said. “About 95 percent of our municipal facilities were destroyed. There is nothing left.”
Wearing a red windbreaker bearing the embroidered seal of his city, Surillo said he doesn’t blame the territorial government for the communication problems.
“This phenomenon was unprecedented. We are learning here,” he said. “No one underestimated the storm’s power, but the magnitude and scale of the destruction has been overwhelming.”
Such comments echo those from the Trump administration, which has pointed out the unique challenges posed by a storm that was nearly a Category 5 and virtually devoured the island of Puerto Rico after plowing through the eastern Caribbean.
Administration officials also have noted that it can take as many as five days to sail to Puerto Rico from mainland ports; the president said the island is in the “middle of the ocean” and pointedly noted on Twitter that it had weak infrastructure before the storm attacked.
The administration’s critics, in turn, have made comparisons to the anemic federal effort in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.
“If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico — and this will become his Katrina,” U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who was born on the island and visited Friday, said in a statement. “Every second in this effort counts, and the stakes are too high for further delay, inaction or inefficiency.”
Velazquez and 144 other lawmakers sent a letter to Trump demanding more resources in the Maria response, including the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, who oversees the military response as chief of U.S. Northern Command, said the Pentagon is dispatching water, food, generators and other resources to the Caribbean and that much more will arrive now that facilities are reopening. She said it wouldn’t have made sense to throw resources blindly at the problems in Puerto Rico without first understanding what people needed most.