As Puerto Rico relief expands, the military will set up numerous hospitals
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: October 4, 2017
The top U.S. general overseeing hurricane relief in Puerto Rico said the military will establish numerous hospitals there in coming days, as thousands of additional troops and dozens more helicopters arrive.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan described in a phone interview a mission that is still evolving and growing as the U.S. government grapples with an extended response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the U.S. island territory Sept. 20 with Category-4 force and killed at least 34 people there. Buchanan arrived Sept. 28 when there were about 4,100 U.S. troops involved in relief efforts on Puerto Rico, and said that number has more than doubled to 9,000, including about 4,000 members of the National Guard.
At least a "couple thousand" more troops will deploy from the mainland United States, Buchanan said. The Puerto Rico National Guard, whose members have been slow to activate as they dealt with devastation in their own homes and carried out full-time jobs as first responders, also is expected to increasingly play an important role, he said.
"What I want to do is max out the mobilizations of the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard on Puerto Rico," Buchanan said of service members who call the island home. "Because that enables us to, first of all, get these people to work, and you know, they know the communities and understand the language. They can be very, very helpful."
The general spoke Tuesday evening after spending part of the day with President Donald Trump, whose administration has faced criticism that the response to the storm's devastation has been too slow. Trump has rejected that, saying the effort has been just as it good as it was after hurricanes Irma and Harvey and sharply pointing out that the island's power grid already was weak.
The military initially responded to Maria with two amphibious combat ships, the USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill, that were positioned south of the storm to provide relief in Puerto Rico. A third ship, the USS Wasp, responded in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Amid a growing outcry at the modest response, the Pentagon boosted its operation rapidly last week, deploying a growing fleet of cargo jets filled with troops and supplies, and the hospital ship USNS Comfort from Norfolk.
On Friday, the military also diverted the Wasp from the U.S. Virgin Islands, saying its mission there was complete. It sailed northwest of Puerto Rico to pick up more Navy Sea Hawk and Marine Corps Super Stallion helicopters flying out from Florida, and is expected to arrive off the coast of Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Buchanan said. It could eventually be deployed to the southern side of the island.
The Defense Department is in a supporting role to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Puerto Rico government, but has been scrutinized for not maneuvering more aid toward the island sooner, including ships like the USS Iwo Jima and USS New York that provided help in the Florida Keys after Irma. Critics also have questioned why it took until Sept. 27 for the Pentagon to deploy a general, Army Brig. Gen. Richard Kim, to oversee military relief operations full-time on shore.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended the Pentagon's response before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, saying "we had people ready to go as fast as they were asked for" by FEMA. The preparations that some troops were making to deploy next year may even be interrupted, he said.
"That's okay when it's helping fellow Americans, especially, although we also help some of the other small countries that were hard hit," Mattis said. "But when it comes to helping Americans, it's all hands on deck."
Buchanan said that Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, the chief of U.S. Northern Command, decided how to respond to the hurricane in Puerto Rico. Buchanan, as the commander of U.S. Army North, oversees Northern Command's joint land forces, and led the responses to Harvey and Irma. Rather than "have me spread out all over the place," Buchanan said, Robinson decided to have Buchanan focus on Irma relief operations in Florida and put Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes, a one-star Navy officer, in charge of Maria relief both on and off shore.
That shifted when the scope of the devastation in Puerto Rico became clear. Northern Command announced a week after the storm, on Sept. 27, that the relief operation was expanding and moving ashore with Kim, Buchanan's deputy commander, deploying. Buchanan deployed a day later, and said that he always planned to oversee both the land and maritime operations in Puerto Rico once Robinson made the call to expand the relief operation.
"Everybody made a big deal about General Kim coming, but he was really my scout," Buchanan said. "He was my advance party. It's not like it was a separate thing."
Robinson said last week that she thinks "there will be some lessons we can learn" about the relief effort, and attributed the pace of the operation to a lack of clarity about what was needed.
"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. "So, whether it's power generators or whether it's water and food, those are things that we already have been shipping in."
As additional troops arrive, Buchanan said he anticipates shifting U.S. forces on the ground to help as many people as possible. Marines and sailors still overseen by Hughes have concentrated primarily on the eastern side of the island around Ceiba, but will likely move farther south as additional U.S. soldiers move to the east. Hughes is expected to stay involved as long as is needed.
The Comfort arrived off the coast of San Juan on Tuesday and also will likely be sent to the eastern side of the island to assist people in Humacao, Buchanan said. As two additional Army hospitals are set up on the ground there, the Comfort could be shifted to Ponce, on the southern side of the island, he added. Another Air Force hospital will be set up on the north side of the island, in Aguadilla.
Mattis said Tuesday that there are six Navy ships involved in the effort. Defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing operations, said that counts the USNS Supply and USNS McLean, which are logistics vessels that do not directly participate in operations on shore and instead support the other vessels in the mission.
The Defense Department had 25 helicopters in Puerto Rico last week, and 44 as of Tuesday, Buchanan said. By the end of the week, there will be more than 70, he said.
The general described the military's relationships on the ground in Puerto Rico as "great," but added that it's "different than the relationship we had in Texas and it's different than the relationship we had in Florida." The military is responding to requests as they come, but as Trump visited Tuesday, the general said he did make a specific pitch to senior administration officials.
"If I could do one thing to make a big difference here, I would flood this place with fuel, both gasoline and diesel," Buchanan said. "Because right now, people don't have gas, and it's hard to get back to work if you can't drive to work . . . We've got a lot coming in, and we're just going to keep pushing hard on it."
Sgt. Crew Gill, a military police officer assigned to the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, and Spc. Joksan Toro, a motor transport operator assigned to Puerto Rico's 755th National Guard Transportation Unit, prepare to unhook pallet nets from around Meals, Ready-To-Eat October 2, 2017, on Vieques.
DONNA DAVIS/U.S. ARMY