Unimaginable suffering continues in Puerto Rico, and the death toll from Hurricane Maria continues to rise. For a week now it has been abundantly clear that the thousands of Federal Emergency Management Agency workers and 7,000 troops on the ground are not enough.
The Trump administration has responded inadequately to the Sept. 20 hurricane that destroyed nearly everything on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. President Donald Trump, who regardless of politics has trouble with basic governance, was on the defensive Friday.
“The response and recovery effort probably has never been seen for something like this,” he said. “This is an island, surrounded by water — big water, ocean water.”
With due respect, we saw something like this just seven years ago. Haiti also is on an island surrounded by big water, ocean water. When an earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010, President Barack Obama ordered up a full-bore U.S. military response that put 22,000 troops on the ground within two weeks.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, meaning its residents are U.S. citizens, but also meaning the U.S. military’s civilian role is constrained. Puerto Rico has to ask for help, and governance issues are tricky. Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, can’t afford to be nervous about turf issues. The military has unique capabilities to deliver help quickly.
The Army’s Disaster Response Staff Officer’s Handbook explains: “Military units come to a disaster with a number of strengths: disciplined and trained personnel; a ready fleet of vehicles, surface craft, and aircraft; the capability to operate in austere environments for extended periods of time; a solid logistics tail; reachback capability; long- and short-range communications suites; an in-place command and control system; and a detailed method for planning, executing, and resourcing missions.”
Because of the scale of the devastation and the island’s isolation, Puerto Rico needs more than overtaxed FEMA staffers can offer. It needs what Haiti got: hundreds of helicopters, dozens of cargo ships and hundreds of transport and utility repair trucks ferried by military transport ships. It needs food, water, generators and emergency shelter. It needs engineers, military police, hospital ships and mobile field hospitals.
“If it was easy, anyone could do it,” the staff officers’ manual says.
Trump, who is scheduled to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday, was slow to realize the magnitude of the problem. He points to the early praise Rossello gave to the response. He sent acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke to tell reporters Thursday that the administration’s response is “a good news story.”
To which Carmen Yulin Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, replied, “Dammit, this is not a good news story. This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story.”
Forget the NFL. Forget tax cuts. The humanitarian disaster unfolding in Puerto Rico demands the U.S. mount up with everything it has.