More than 500 Navy doctors, nurses, corpsmen and other medical staff were assembling aboard the USNS Comfort on Thursday in Norfolk, Virginia, to steam to the rescue of Puerto Rico. The lumbering, 900-foot gleaming white hospital ship with a red cross on its side is due to anchor off the island’s isolated southern coast Wednesday — a day after President Donald Trump visits and two weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island.
It’s been eight days since the Category 4 hurricane hit, snapping power poles, ripping roofs off homes and devastating the island’s infrastructure. Florida Gov. Rick Scott was there with a delegation on Thursday. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who visited Monday, tweeted that the Pentagon probably needed “to address some ‘battlefield’ like logistical challenges” on the island.
The power grid was still down and people were still relying on generators, which is apparently how 34 of the island’s 69 hospitals were up and running Thursday. Gas lines were long, where people could find fuel. Communications were crippled and relief supplies were stacked up at the port, prompting the governor to ask the Pentagon for transportation units.
But even as the politicians visit the island or tweet about the calamity, the American island’s stateside brethren have decried the U.S. response as slow, unfocused and inviting a humanitarian crisis. The island’s governor, Ricardo Roselló, described the impact of the hurricane Thursday as “the biggest event of devastation in the modern history of Puerto Rico.”
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And the deployment of the USNS Comfort is a case-in-point.
On Sunday defeated presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, no doubt drawing upon her Secretary of State experience, urged the Trump administration in a tweet to send the Navy, notably the former oil tanker Comfort that in 2003 deployed to the Persian Gulf to treat combat troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom and then two years later came to the rescue in Hurricane Katrina.
But the Pentagon didn’t order the Comfort to embark on the five-day transit to Puerto Rico until Wednesday, as seas stirred up by Maria made departure that day impossible. Besides, the Comfort only staffs for missions and usually requires five days lead time. On Thursday, the Navy planned to cut that time in half as medical teams scrambled from across the nation to depart Friday for the five-day transit. The ships maximum speed is 17 knots.
The staff includes general practitioners, pediatricians, obstetricians, surgeons and nephrologists, a staff designed more for a humanitarian than a combat mission.
“We’ve got rough seas right off the coast of Virginia. Nonetheless they’re getting underway at 1 o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” said Bill Mesta, a spokesman for the Military Sealift Command. Much had yet to be decided. The destination, he said, was likely the southern side of Puerto Rico, and the ship would fall under Expeditionary Strike Group 2, which included three U.S. Navy amphibious vessels, USS Kearsarge, USS Oak Hill and USS Wasp as well as the aptly named combat logistic ship the USNS Supply, capable of delivering fuel, food and, in time of war, ammunition.
But that command structure could change, he noted. “It’s all developing.”
Meantime, on the ground, about 4 million liters of water had been “hoisted into Puerto Rico,” Roselló said, suggesting most came by sea not aircraft — and another 7.6 million liters was expected.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Roselló made a plea for a level of understanding that neither Texas Gov. Greg Abbott nor Florida’s Scott needed to utter after Hurricane Harvey swamped parts of Texas and Irma smashed the Florida Keys and raked the rest of the state.
“Recognize that we are American citizens and that we are proud American citizens,” he said, noting that as fellow Americans were suffering from earlier hurricanes this season, Puerto Rico proudly sent rescue teams to Texas, hosted a Pentagon response unit and provided shelter and relief to 4,000 people evacuated from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
On Wednesday, the Army was scrambling 70 soldiers and eight Blackhawk helicopters from the 101st Airborne capable of medevac missions while the 448th Engineer Battalion was clearing routes. Thursday, Roselló declared: “We need truck drivers.” With power and communications cut, he said, the island’s truck drivers were slow to respond. He asked the U.S. military to send them transportation units to help distribute food and fuel.
Part of the problem, to be sure, is the island’s isolation. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led New Orleans’ 2005 Katrina response, noted Thursday that unlike Florida and Louisiana, whose neighboring National Guard are a truck-ride away, the island has “about 1,200 miles of ocean” between it and the mainland.
Pointedly lacking in the response so far, he said in an “NPR Morning Edition“ interview was the “expeditionary logistics capacity of the Department of Defense.” Or as Roselló put it: “Quickly what we need is equipment, human resources, whether it be National Guard or state guard.”
Honorésaid the Pentagon had mobilized just 2,200 federal troops to the island, compared to the 20,000 who responded to Katrina. In America, he said. “We always do the right thing. We’re just slow about doing it.”
And in the case of Maria, “we started moving about four days too late.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced soon after that the president had waived the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, to allow non-U.S. ships to deliver goods from the United States to Puerto Rico. This was done by the Department of Homeland Security issuing a 10-day waiver.
Two hours later, Trump tweeted: “The electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shot. Large numbers of generators are now on Island. Food and water on site.”
Around the same time, Florida’s governor left Fort Lauderdale in a state law enforcement agency plane, rather than his own Cessna jet to see how Florida might offer assistance. His office said he was bringing along Florida National Guard Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, who Honoré celebrated as handling Irma “magnificently” through the strategic pre-positioning of National Guard forces around the storm and into shelters.
Scott’s visit follows one by Rubio on Monday, who flew with the Coast Guard to see the damage and separately, a trip Friday by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the company of Puerto Rican-born Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez, who represents parts of Brooklyn.
Trump’s tweet Thursday reporting the power outage in Puerto Rico was the president’s first on the aftermath of Maria in 48 hours. Tuesday he declared “America’s hearts & prayers are with the people of #PuertoRico & the #USVI. We will get through this — and we will get through this TOGETHER!”
In the intervening time:
▪ The Pentagon provided helicopters to Health and Human Services teams assessing damage to island hospitals, and said by Thursday 12 of the island’s 69 hospitals had yet to receive assessments.
▪ Defense Department troops were part of the effort to deliver food Wednesday to 35 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities.
▪ FEMA tasked the Army Corps of Engineers to help the island restore its electrical grid even as, a Pentagon statement said, the focus was on getting generators and fuel to people. The Army engineers were also providing sand bags to shore up the Guajataca Dam spillway, the Pentagon reported.
▪ U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Rich Kim, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, arrived in Puerto Rico on Wednesday to oversee the federal response effort. Thursday, the U.S. military announced that it was adding even more seniority to the operation with the deployment of Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan “as the Department of Defense’s primary liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the response efforts transition from a sea-based to a land-based operation.” He was set to arrive on the island Thursday.
“There is a crisis in Puerto Rico where food, fuel, water and medicine is sitting at the docks and not getting out to the remote parts of the island,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said by press release. “The situation calls for an immediate response by the U.S. military to provide security and distribution to these remote areas. As was said after Hurricane Andrew: ‘Where the hell is the cavalry?’ ”
For some, it is coming by sea aboard a white hospital ship with a giant red cross on its side.
The Comfort’s spokesman said the Navy medical team anticipates there will be much to do once they reach the southern part of Puerto Rico, where people have been cut off from the most services. As a measure of its isolation, the Coast Guard on Thursday released a photo of a table aboard the Cutter Venturious, off the southern city of Ponce, showing a pile of provisions — including soup, peanuts and beef jerky — that Coast Guardsmen were donating from their personal stashes to the local relief effort.
“The recovery is going to be a long-term mission,” Mesta said. “It’s going to take a long time for Puerto Rico to recover.”
Staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.