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Pentagon's hurricane relief effort in Puerto Rico is nearly over, but these missions remain

U.S. servicemembers help off-load boxes of Meals Ready to Eat and packets of bottled water during a humanitarian distribution event in Morovis, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, Nov.7, 2017.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: November 21, 2017

The majority of active-duty U.S. troops involved in hurricane relief in Puerto Rico will return home this week, but power restoration and a few other missions are ongoing, said a U.S. general overseeing the effort.

Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said in an interview Tuesday that charter flights will take troops home to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Benning in Georgia, Joint Base San Antonio in Texas and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state on Wednesday. As of Monday, there were about 2,200 active-duty and reserve troops, but many are Puerto Ricans who are part of reserve units based on the island, he said.

An additional 4,000 members of the National Guard also are on duty, including about 3,000 from the Puerto Rico National Guard, Buchanan said. They continue to distribute supplies, clear roads and transport people by helicopter as needed.

"We're going to be probably down in the neighborhood of 100 or so active-component troops after this weekend," Buchanan said.

The mission will shrink again two months after Hurricane Maria leveled much of the U.S. island territory after making landfall Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm. A U.S. Navy task force responded afterward and began performing search-and-rescue missions, but the federal government's overall response was widely panned initially for not being fast enough.

Buchanan said Tuesday that he had "personal regrets" that the military response was not faster, but said it was difficult to understand the scope of the disaster because communications on the island were destroyed. The military units initially there, he said, "didn't have a feel for how badly all of the island was impacted."

The Pentagon rapidly scaled up its involvement Sept. 26, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined more help was needed. Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, the chief of U.S. Northern Command, tapped Buchanan to take over the military response in Puerto Rico, and the Pentagon began deploying thousands of troops to the island. At its peak, there were more than 10,000 service members in Puerto Rico.

Aside from members of the National Guard, the remaining U.S. troops on the island will concentrate on power restoration, running Doppler weather radar sites and manning headquarters in San Juan, Buchanan said. A unit of several dozen Army reservists who work as linemen - Delta Company, 249th Engineer Battalion - are involved in efforts to run new power lines on the island. The storm destroyed nearly all of Puerto Rico's power grid, and about half of it is still down.

A Navy hospital ship dispatched to Puerto Rico, the USNS Comfort, returned to Virginia on Monday. No combat ships are involved in hurricane relief, but a 951-foot cargo ship, the USNS Brittin, delivered supplies to the port of Ponce on Monday, including electrical poles and more generators, Buchanan said. The ship will be loaded in Ponce with equipment no longer being used in the relief mission, including trucks and helicopters.

The Coast Guard, initially involved heavily in Puerto Rico relief, also has seen their role wane as immediate crises have disappeared. The sea service is no longer carrying out search-and-rescue missions, and has sent its cutters elsewhere. Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Kelley, a spokesman, said Tuesday that the service is still involved in part by assessing the condition of sunken vessels off the coast, both for how they may affect the environment and handled as salvage.

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