Much to be done to help Puerto Rico, Army general says

| October 17, 2017 | 0 Comments

Airmen, soldiers and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel load food and water onto a Navy HH-60 Seahawk helicopter at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, Oct. 7, 2017. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Hicks, 621st Contingency Response Wing)

Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON — Military personnel helping the people of Puerto Rico have made great progress since Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20, said Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the commander of ground forces on the island, but, he added, the scale and scope of devastation caused by the storm was so great that much remains to be done.

“When I got here two weeks ago, we had 25 helicopters and 4,500 troops,” the general said in a phone interview from the island. “Now we have 68 helicopters and 14,300 troops. We’re getting a lot done, but we have a long way to go.”

Hurricane Maria was devastating to Puerto Rico. Coming just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, about 80,000 residents were still without electricity when Maria made landfall. It knocked down trees everywhere, and the heavy rain caused landslides, which cut off many communities in the interior of the island. Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was destroyed in the storm, leaving the entire island without power.

The general has been working shoulder-to-shoulder with Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello and the Federal Emergency Management Agency team, he said.

Private First Class Leon Good, a Combat Aviation Brigade Medic from Carlsbad, N.M., tends to patients in Puerto Rico at FEMA’s National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), a mobile emergency and clinical care facility currently setup near the CAB in Fajardo, treating up to 150 patients a day, October 13, 2017. Those requiring more significant life-saving measures than available at the NDMS, the CAB air-transports to San Juan. The CAB brings a diverse set of capabilities to assist the local and federal responders in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and will continue assisting for as long as required.(Photo by Capt. Tyson Friar, 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade)

Logistical Support
Most of the troops in the U.S. commonwealth are logisticians, medical specialists and aviation specialists, Buchanan said. Military personnel are still getting food, water and fuel to the people who need it. “We bring supplies in [to the major ports] and we distribute to regional staging areas with FEMA,” he said. “The Puerto Rican National Guard pushes it out from there.”

The military is also delivering commodities by air.

“We had to do that early on because a lot of areas were cut off,” Buchanan said.

Most communities are now being supplied via road, but there are still some remote communities where the roads are blocked.

Clearing the roads is the next big project, Buchanan said. “We’ve been doing this all along, but it is complicated,” he said. “It’s been raining a lot, and once a route is cleared, there has been so much rain in the mountains that often there are more landslides, which close the route again.”

“There are lots of volunteers out clearing routes, but we’re using Marines, Army Reserve soldiers and Puerto Rican Army National Guard [to do] the bulk of the work,” the general said.

Over the past week, the fuel situation has largely returned to normal, Buchanan said. Most gas stations have reopened and people who once waited up to seven hours for fuel can now just drive up.

Providing medical facilities has been a priority. A combat surgical hospital is operating in the southeastern part of the island, the general said. The hospital serving that portion of the island was destroyed when Maria came ashore.

Electricity
The huge problem is electrical power. It is the proverbial long pole in the tent especially when dealing with recovery, the general said. Maria toppled tens of thousands of electrical poles – many made out of cement or embedded in cement. Trees crashed into lines, bringing them down. In some areas, the electrical wires look like giant rolls of string, he said.

“It will be months before we rebuild the electrical grid,” Buchanan said. “FEMA asked the Army Corps of Engineers to take the lead in that, not necessarily with military power guys, but with contracts with local workers.”

The electrical grid impacts every area from communications to water purification. The general said the military is purifying water locally and distributing it out to the communities, but this is inefficient. The short-term solution is to get generators up and running at the water treatment plants so the water system works again. The long-term solution is to get these plants – and other critical infrastructure like sewage treatment – back on the electrical grid.

Buchanan said has the resources he needs to accomplish the mission. He has three times the number of helicopters and twice as many troops in Puerto Rico as he did in responding to Hurricane Harvey in Texas.

“We’ve got sufficient troops to do what needs to be done,” he said.

 

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