When a natural disaster strikes in the United States, one of the first lines of defense in calming the chaos is typically the National Guard. The service advertises doing so as a core mission, telling prospective guardsmen and women that, as “citizen-soldiers,” they will be called upon to help friends and neighbors.
But nine days after Hurricane Maria, a striking trend has emerged: Less than half of the 8,000 members of the Puerto Rico National Guard are on duty. Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top U.S. officer overseeing military operations on the island, attributed this to a combination of factors. Many personnel are dealing with the devastation in their own lives, he said, and some are providing help in their full-time jobs as police, firefighters or other first responders rather than through the Guard.
The struggle to activate National Guard troops comes as Puerto Rico grapples with devastation that U.S. officials have, repeatedly, called unprecedented while defending the federal government’s response. A growing number of critics have questioned why more U.S. forces were not deployed sooner. The storm cut a 60-mile wide swath across the island with Category-4 strength, knocking out the electrical grid and leaving people desperate for food, clean water and medical care.
Of the Puerto Rico Guard’s 8,000 members, some 2,750 are activated, said Kurt Rauschenberg, a National Guard Bureau spokesman. That number is growing by the day, but it illustrates a crucial difference in how states and territories responded to hurricanes this year.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) activated all 7,000 members of the Florida National Guard before Hurricane Irma pummeled the state. In Texas, all 12,000 members were activated within two days of Hurricane Harvey coming ashore with Category-4 strength.
The comparatively small number of Guard troops on duty in Puerto Rico appears to underscore a disconnect between pleas made on the ground by civilians on the ground since the storm, and the federal government’s relatively modest response at first. It also may have slowed awareness of how bad the destruction was, with fewer personnel responding early and cataloguing needs.
Initially, the active-duty military’s response consisted primarily of sailors and Marines aboard two Navy combat ships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Oak Hill, but increased significantly after William “Brock” Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, visited Puerto Rico on Monday and saw the devastation firsthand.
Buchanan, who arrived in Puerto Rico on Thursday, said that about 4,500 or 4,600 U.S. troops were on duty as of Friday, including Guard personnel. More are on the way, though he declined to say how large the mission could become.
“I can’t give you a total number, but I can tell you that DOD is committed to bringing in more people as long as there is a need,” Buchanan said, referring to the Department of Defense.
Many roads still need to be cleared, but the general said it makes sense for local companies to perform the work. That way, Buchanan said, federal disaster-relief money will be pumped into the local economy, which needs help.
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