U.S. appoints general to oversee military response to Puerto Rico disaster

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico,  (Reuters) – The Pentagon appointed a senior general to oversee military relief operations in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, even as President Donald Trump’s administration faced calls from lawmakers for a far more robust response to the disaster.

The U.S. territory of 3.4 million people is reeling from Hurricane Maria, which struck on Sept. 20 as the most powerful storm to hit the island in nearly 90 years, causing widespread flooding, completely cutting power and heavily damaging homes, roads and other infrastructure.

An aerial photo shows damage caused by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. REUTERS/DroneBase

The storm claimed more than 30 lives across the Caribbean, including at least 16 in Puerto Rico. Governor Ricardo Rossello has called the scope of the island’s devastation unprecedented.

The U.S. military, which has poured some 4,400 troops into the relief effort, including the Puerto Rico National Guard, named Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan to oversee its response on the island.

Buchanan, Army chief for the military’s U.S. Northern Command, was expected to arrive in Puerto Rico later on Thursday. He will be the Pentagon’s main liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. government’s lead agency on the island, and focus on aid distribution, the Pentagon said in a statement.

FEMA has placed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in charge of rebuilding the island’s crippled power grid.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, like Trump a Republican, had earlier called for appointment of a single authority to oversee all hurricane relief efforts, and said the Defense Department should mostly be in charge.

“I’m arguing that at least when it comes to logistics the federal government is going to have to lead, and they’re going to have to put someone there with the authority to make these decisions and execute on them fairly quickly,” Rubio told CNN.

Democratic U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the crisis was shifting from a natural disaster to a man-made one, adding that the government’s response had been “shamefully slow and undersized and should be vastly upgraded and increased.”

Speaking on the Senate floor, he called for as many as 50,000 troops “not to occupy the island, not to enforce martial law” but to coordinate logistics and the delivery of aid and basic necessities.

Even as FEMA and the U.S. military have stepped up relief efforts, many residents in Puerto Rico have been frustrated over the prolonged lack of electricity, drinking water and other essentials.

Radamez Montañez, a building administrator from the municipality of Carolina, east of capital city San Juan, said he had been without water and electricity at home since Hurricane Irma grazed the island two weeks before Maria. “It’s chaos, total chaos,” he said.

Defending the relief effort, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said 10,000 federal relief workers had arrived in Puerto Rico, including troops, and that 44 of the island’s 69 hospitals were now fully operational.

“The full weight of the United States government is engaged to ensure that food, water, healthcare and other life-saving resources are making it to the people in need,” Sanders told reporters.

The Trump administration earlier lifted restrictions known as the Jones Act for 10 days on foreign shipping from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico. While that measure might help speed cargo shipments, Puerto Rico is struggling to move supplies around the island once they arrive.

The U.S. government has temporarily lifted the Jones Act following violent storms in the past, including Irma, which pummeled Florida earlier this month, and Hurricane Harvey, which thrashed Texas in late August. Critics had charged the government was slow to do this for Puerto Rico.

Overall, the island is likely to need far more than $30 billion in long-term aid from the U.S. government for disaster relief and rebuilding efforts following Maria, a senior Republican congressional aide said on Thursday.

The aide, who asked not to be identified, said that while Congress has quickly fulfilled the administration’s requests for disaster assistance, there are concerns that government agencies have been sluggish and that bureaucratic red tape may have slowed the work of the Defense Department and other offices.

The immediate relief effort was still badly hampered by the hit to infrastructure.

Clearing cargo deliveries at the San Juan port remained slow, and several newly arrived tankers were waiting for a chance to unload their fuel, according to Thomson Reuters shipping data.

“Really our biggest challenge has been the logistical assets to try to get some of the food and some of the water to different areas of Puerto Rico,” Governor Rossello told MSNBC on Thursday. He has staunchly defended the Trump administration for its relief response.

Brock Long, the FEMA administrator, told CNN he was dissatisfied with the federal response to Maria, saying relief operations had been hindered by damage to the island’s air traffic control system, airports and seaports.

The military has delivered fuel to nine hospitals and helped establish more than 100 distribution centers for food and water on the island, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

It was also shipping such equipment as a large generator to power a radar center for air traffic control in San Juan and other airports, and a barge with 100 supply trucks carrying diesel and gasoline.

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