Mari Carmen Aponte previously served as acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and as the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.
Today, nearly 3.5 million Americans on the island of Puerto Rico face a crushing reality after Hurricane Maria blew through and wreaked havoc on infrastructure already weakened by years of financial decline. Our fellow citizens in the U.S. Virgin Islands are hurting as well. Many have lost their homes. Some have lost their lives. Almost all remain without power, water and communication. Many are nervously wondering whether their food supplies will last another day. These fellow citizens need our help and urgent assistance from our military.
As a proud public servant and American from Puerto Rico, my heart breaks when I see images of the devastation. It hurts to hear the desperation in the voices of so many Puerto Ricans on the mainland who have spent days trying to get in touch with their families. This weekend, Puerto Ricans across the 50 states spent sleepless nights waiting by the phone, creating Facebook groups by town to reach family members, as major U.S. news outlets offered paltry coverage of what was happening. Many are still waiting for the call from their grandmothers, their mothers, their children. These are fellow citizens, such as U.S. Army Reserve Specialist Grisella Romero-James, who spent five days in Fort Benning waiting for news about her aunt, a hospice patient who braved the storm bedridden in a fragile house.
I had the privilege of serving this great nation as acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and the honor of leading the U.S. response to several flashpoints in the region. I helped lead the response to Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, alongside our military and the U.S. Agency for International Development's Disaster Assistance Response Team. In that effort, I witnessed the awesome power of the U.S. military in times of crisis.
The U.S. military has unique airlift and logistics capacity to ramp up assistance quickly and efficiently to save lives during natural disasters. We need that kind of response today in Puerto Rico, and we need it now. Puerto Ricans are especially vulnerable as the island relies heavily on food imports and nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line. Our military must expedite the flow of gasoline, water and food in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response so that we can reach those in urgent need, especially the poor and the elderly.
Parts of Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior were hit hard and remain cut off from supplies and communication, with many rural roads split. Military and other emergency personnel can facilitate search-and-rescue and airlift capacity in these areas. We also need military assistance to ensure public safety and assist the orderly flow of people and supplies from airports. The public and private sectors must come together to get phone lines working as soon as possible to mitigate emergencies that can unfold as people begin to run out of water, food and medicine.
From hurricanes such as Katrina and Sandy, we have learned that an early and scaled-up response is critical to save lives and to transition quickly to recovery. Our elected officials must prioritize relief for Puerto Rico before the crisis gets worse. We must equip the military, FEMA and private organizations with the resources they need to respond quickly. The Trump administration should also immediately waive the Jones Act's restrictions on foreign ships' transporting cargo to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The lives of Americans are on the line, and we must act fast.
Puerto Ricans have an abiding patriotism and commitment to our nation, serving bravely from World War I to today's fight against the Islamic State. More than 10,000 Puerto Ricans are on active duty in our military. We have always been on the front lines defending the homeland. Throughout our country's hardest moments, we have said: "presente." Now, we need our fellow Americans to be there for us.
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