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The new general in Puerto Rico details his plan to speed relief as more troops arrive

Sgt. Angel Cotton and other members of the Puerto Rico National Guard deliver food and water by helicopter to residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Getty Images)
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The top U.S. general overseeing hurricane relief in Puerto Rico said the military will establish numerous hospitals there in coming days, as thousands of additional troops and dozens more helicopters arrive.

Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan described in a phone interview a mission that is still evolving as the U.S. government grapples with an extended response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the U.S. island territory Sept. 20 with Category-4 force, killing at least 34 people. Buchanan arrived eight days later, when about 4,100 U.S. troops were involved in relief efforts throughout Puerto Rico. Since then, that number has more than doubled, to 9,000, including about 4,000 members of the National Guard, he said.

At least a “couple thousand” more troops will deploy from the U.S. mainland, Buchanan said. The Puerto Rico National Guard, whose members were slow to activate as they dealt with devastation in their own homes and carried out full-time jobs as first responders, also is expected to play a bigger role, he said.

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“What I want to do is max out the mobilizations of the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard on Puerto Rico,” Buchanan said of service members who call the island home. “Because that enables us to, first of all, get these people to work, and you know, they know the communities and understand the language. They can be very, very helpful.”

The general spoke to The Washington Post on Tuesday evening, after spending part of the day with President Trump, whose administration has faced criticism that its response to the storm’s devastation has been slow. Trump has rejected that, saying the effort has been as good as it was after hurricanes Irma and Harvey, and pointing out that the island’s power grid already was weak.

Initially, the military responded to Maria with two amphibious combat ships, the USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill, both positioned south of the storm to provide relief in Puerto Rico. A third ship, the USS Wasp, was sent to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Trump administration rushes military assets to Puerto Rico amid growing crisis

The Pentagon boosted its operation last week, deploying cargo jets filled with troops and supplies, and sending the hospital ship USNS Comfort from Norfolk Then on Friday, the Wasp was diverted to Puerto Rico, with officials saying its mission in the Virgin Islands was complete. The ship sailed northwest of Puerto Rico to pick up more Navy Sea Hawk and Marine Corps Super Stallion helicopters flying out from Florida, and was expected to arrive Wednesday, Buchanan said. Eventually, it could be deployed to the island’s southern side.

The Defense Department remains in a supporting role, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Puerto Rico government, but it has been scrutinized for not maneuvering more assets toward the island sooner — namely the USS Iwo Jima and the USS New York, which were brought on to help in the Florida Keys after Irma. Critics also have questioned why it took until Sept. 27 for the Pentagon to deploy a general, Army Brig. Gen. Richard Kim, to oversee military relief operations full-time on shore.

Speaking this week on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended the Pentagon’s response, saying that “we had people ready to go as fast as they were asked for” by FEMA — even, he said, at the risk of interrupting preparations for other deployments.

“That’s okay when it’s helping fellow Americans, especially, although we also help some of the other small countries that were hard hit,” Mattis said. “But when it comes to helping Americans, it’s all hands on deck.”

Buchanan said that Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, the chief of U.S. Northern Command, decided how to respond to the hurricane in Puerto Rico. Buchanan, as the commander of U.S. Army North, oversees Northern Command’s joint land forces, and led the responses to Harvey and Irma. Rather than “have me spread out all over the place,” Buchanan said, Robinson decided to have him focus on Irma relief operations in Florida and put Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes, a one-star Navy officer, in charge of Maria relief both on and off shore.

Trump administration facing pressure to speed up recovery efforts in Puerto Rico

That shifted when the scope of the devastation in Puerto Rico became more clear. Northern Command announced a week after the storm, on Sept. 27, that its relief operation was expanding and moving ashore with Kim, Buchanan’s deputy, deploying from the U.S. mainland. Buchanan was dispatched a day later, and said that he always planned to oversee both the land and maritime operations in Puerto Rico once Robinson made the call to expand them.

“Everybody made a big deal about General Kim coming, but he was really my scout,” Buchanan said. “He was my advance party. It’s not like it was a separate thing.”

Robinson said last week that she thinks “there will be some lessons we can learn” about the Puerto Rico relief effort, noting that there was a lack of clarity, at first, about what was needed.

“You have to understand,” she said, “what is happening on the ground so you don’t add to the burden, but to make sure you put the right capability and capacity.”

As additional troops arrive, Buchanan said he anticipates shifting personnel to reach as many people as possible. Marines and sailors are concentrated primarily on Puerto Rico’s eastern side, around Ceiba, but probably will move farther south as additional U.S. troops move to the east. Hughes, the Navy admiral first on scene, is expected to stay involved as long as is needed.

The Comfort arrived off San Juan on Tuesday and is likely to be sent to the island’s eastern side to assist people in Humacao, Buchanan said. As two additional Army hospitals are set up on the ground there, the Comfort could be shifted to Ponce, on Puerto Rico’s southern side, he added. An Air Force hospital will be set up north, in Aguadilla.

A senior defense official, Thomas LaCrosse, previously said that the U.S. government debated sending the Comfort the weekend after the storm hit, but decided against it because Puerto Rico officials wanted field hospitals on shore. On Sept. 27, FEMA Director William “Brock” Long announced that the Comfort would be deploying, after all. It left Norfolk on Friday.

Mattis told lawmakers this week that six Navy ships are involved in the effort. Other defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations, said Mattis’s figures include the USNS Supply and the USNS McLean, which are logistics vessels that do not directly participate in operations on shore but support other vessels involved in the humanitarian mission.

The Defense Department had 25 helicopters in Puerto Rico last week, and 44 as of Tuesday, Buchanan said. By the end of the week, there will be more than 70, he said.

The general described the military’s relationships on the ground in Puerto Rico as “great,” but added that it’s “different than the relationship we had in Texas and it’s different than the relationship we had in Florida.” The military is responding to requests as they come, but as Trump visited Tuesday, the general said he did make a specific pitch to senior administration officials.

“If I could do one thing to make a big difference here, I would flood this place with fuel, both gasoline and diesel,” Buchanan said. “Because right now, people don’t have gas, and it’s hard to get back to work if you can’t drive to work. … We’ve got a lot coming in, and we’re just going to keep pushing hard on it.”

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