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US rushes military assets to Puerto Rico to aid recovery

Juan Perez walks through a neighborhood flooded by Hurricane Maria in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Sept. 23, 2017. A recent poll found that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, are U.S. citizens — a potential reason the devastation wrought by Maria has attracted less public or political attention. Victor J. Blue / The New York Times. Copyright New York Times.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - The Trump administration is rushing military hardware and personnel into Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands as it becomes increasingly clear that the U.S. government response to Hurricane Maria so far has been inadequate and overmatched by the scale of the disaster.

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 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 Donald 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 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.

"You have to understand what is happening on the ground so you don't add to the burden, but to make sure you put the right capability and capacity," she said at a conference Wednesday in Washington.

The Pentagon's effort to date remains smaller than relief operations marshaled after other major natural disasters, including Katrina in 2005 and the 2013 typhoon that devastated the Philippines. In those cases, the military established a joint task force led by a three-star general. Critics of the response to Maria have called for the Pentagon to do so in Puerto Rico, too.

Asked what additional needs there might be, Robinson said, "We haven't caught our breath yet." At some point the military will enter a "lesson learned" phase, she said: "I think there will be some things that we are able to learn."

A massive C-5 military cargo jet arrived in Puerto Rico on Wednesday carrying about 50 people and equipment needed to set up a headquarters on land, according to U.S. Northern Command.

The military surges come after a visit earlier this week to the islands by Federal Emergency Management Agency Director William "Brock" Long, and after the U.S. military reopened two major airfields capable of handling the Pentagon's cargo jets. There are about 5,000 active-duty U.S. service members and National Guardsmen on duty assisting Puerto Rico, said Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, called the deployment of Kim, the brigadier general, a "big step forward," telling senators Wednesday that his presence will help accelerate decision-making on the ground.

The opening of a former base, Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, also will allow more military planes to land. That in turn will free the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport near San Juan to accept commercial flights to and from the U.S. mainland. So far that airport primarily has seen only "relief" flights by commercial carriers, as well as many military flights.

The Trump administration is restricting lawmakers in both parties from visiting the islands aboard military aircraft this weekend to keep focused on recovery missions there, according to congressional aides. Multiple attempts have been underway in recent days for members of both parties to travel to Puerto Rico aboard military aircraft. At least 10 members of the House and Senate were hoping to travel this Friday as part of a delegation organized by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., followed by another joint trip Sunday organized by others, according to two aides.

But since Monday evening, permission to use military aircraft to make the trips has been denied by the White House and Pentagon, the aides said. Trump said at a news conference Monday that he would be traveling to Puerto Rico next Tuesday, and he might also visit the U.S. Virgin Islands.

FEMA has released details about the amount of aid provided to the islands thus far, including 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, 70,000 tarps and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting. The agency has said that federal personnel are "aggressively working 24 hours, seven days a week" to restore power, communications and port access.

"The difference between Puerto Rico and the mainland is the logistical challenges," said FEMA spokesman William Booher. "Unlike Texas and Florida, with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, you can't just move in with a convoy of trucks and supplies. Everything has to be brought in by air and sea."

He said there are now 10,000 federal workers on the ground in Puerto Rico and that more than 120 satellite phones arrived there Tuesday to help responders communicate with one another.

The territorial government and federal agencies are all working under the same roof, at the convention center in San Juan. Thousands of people are hurrying through the cavernous three-story facility. A smattering of local residents are coming in to ask for help with food and fuel.

"The whole government is here," said Rosario, the governor's spokesman, who has been pacing the hallways and is operating from a makeshift office roped off from the rest of the convention center. It overlooks an area where nearly 600 cots are laid out for volunteer firefighters who have come from New York City, central Florida and other locales.

"We had an emergency plan before, during and after this storm, but we have been adjusting along the way," Rosario said. "You simply cannot predict everything that will result from a Category 5 or 4 storm."

One man insisted on being heard: Jaime Barlucea, mayor of the mountainous town of Adjuntas in the island's center. He carried a cardboard box full of stuffed manila folders.

"Each form represents a home that was destroyed," Barlucea said.

Barlucea, who has been mayor for 16 years, said he came to San Juan to personally ask the governor for the food, tarps and generators his people desperately need.

These are dark nights on the island. Sue Kelly, chief executive of the American Public Power Association, said no electricity transmission linemen have been sent to Puerto Rico. They don't have the poles or wires or trucks they need, she said, and for now they would just be a burden.

Authors Information: Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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