I noticed that some of the commentary that followed my posting of Sept. 30 on the Puerto Rico situation went way off topic, while a few comments that were on topic were just baloney. Perhaps they were inspired by the bias against Trump that has dominated much of the news media from the day his election was confirmed and the opportunism of some political figures who have never accepted his election. The real military effort, dogged as it is by real difficulties that often stem from disasters, nevertheless continues. At least two refutations of the misinformation, by individuals who know of which they speak, have emerged in recent days to set the record straight.
I. The Refutations
“It’s picture perfect devastation. The hurricane came through the middle of the island. 100% of the island is without power. As a Puerto Rican it troubles me to hear the misinformation about the crux of the issue.” This was Colonel Michael A. Valle, US Air Force, Commander, 101st Air and Space Operations Group, and Director of the Joint Air Component Coordination Element, 1st Air Force and native of Puerto Rico, speaking as both a military professional deeply involved in coordinating the military relief effort and as someone with family and a deep personal stake in what's happening on the island, speaking to the Huffington Post on Friday.“It’s just not true,” Col. Valle says of the major disconnect today between the perception of a lack of response from Washington verses what is really going on on the ground. “I have family here. My parents’ home is here. My uncles, aunts, cousins, are all here. As a Puerto Rican, I can tell you that the problem has nothing to do with the U.S. military, FEMA, or the DoD.”
Valle goes on to point out that the problem isn't getting relief supplies to the island, but getting them distributed. This is because of the lack of truck drivers. The truck drivers aren't going to work because they're dealing with the same conditions as everyone else. " They can’t get to work, the infrastructure is destroyed, they can’t get fuel themselves, and they can’t call us for help because there’s no communication. The will of the people of Puerto Rico is off the charts. The truck drivers have families to take care of, many of them have no food or water. They have to take care of their family’s needs before they go off to work, and once they do go, they can’t call home,” explains Col. Valle.
"Yes, people are in need of food and water and medical supplies and power; I personally know the people here and they are very grateful for what we are doing. I’m passionate and I’m proud of the response. We did the same response for Hurricane Irma in Florida as for Puerto Rico with Maria,” Col Valle says. “As a Puerto Rican, what happens here for the people is personal to me. To say that we are not providing all of the help and resources needed is just not true. Distribution is the key, and we are working day and night on it. I’m here, my own family is here, I know how hard this is. We need to keep doing what we are doing. It’s going to take the resource of time.”
Another refutation comes from retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix, a man with a resume as long as my arm filled with professional qualifications and academic credentials, including expertise in disaster response, who now runs the Navy's history center. He argues that the criticism of Trump is not justified at all. "First of all, there was a fair amount of anticipatory action that is not being recognized," he told Bloomberg News in a Sept. 30 interview. "Amphibious ships including the light amphibious carriers Kearsarge and Wasp and the amphibious landing ship dock Oak Hill were at sea and dispatched to Puerto Rico ahead of the hurricane’s impact." The fact that these ships are designed to send and support Marines in operations ashore also makes them excellent platforms for supporting disaster relief operations.
The USNS Comfort, while sporting a huge medical capability, lacks the ability to operate landing craft and has only limited helicopter capability, so it has to be pier side to be most effective. The ship was designed to support large military operations and it take times to prepare it to go to sea. he stressed that it is not an "emergency response" ship. "Given that there was no certainty where the hurricane would hit, it doesn’t make sense to have readied her prior to its impact," Hendrix said.
FEMA director Brock Long told Fox News yesterday that he simply doesn't have time for all of the noise. “The problem is information is being misrepresented across the board,” Long told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “I don’t have time for that. What he have time for is being laser focused on helping the people of Puerto Rico. … You should come down here. You should see what’s up.” Long acknowledged the difficulties, saying, “Every day we have progress. Every day we have setbacks. … Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely.”
II. The Current Updates
Sixteen more helicopters from Fort Bliss will be delivered today and tomorrow to Puerto Rico, according to yesterday's Pentagon update. The USNS Comfort is expected to arrive in San Juan on Wednesday. FEMA reports assessments of 64 of 69 hospitals complete; 59 are partially or fully operational. Seven-hundred-fourteen of 1,100 retail gas stations have reopened and Forty-nine percent of grocery and big box stores are open. Eleven percent of Puerto Rico has cell service. LTG Buchanan led a DoD assessment on Saturday and has the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command integrated with FEMA in development of an area-wide concept of operations focused on sustainment and commodities distribution. The second and third of the five force packages I described yesterday have arrived, providing command and control and logistical capabilities. The fourth package seems to be the 16 helicopters from Fort Bliss, while the fifth package will provide more robust medical capacity.
An emailed Pentagon update, this morning, reports that Buchanan approved operational plans for logistics and health support last night and is re-positioning capabilities to execute these plans. The logistics concept includes establishment of additional distribution centers to get commodities closer to the municipalities, increasing distribution nodes from 11 to at least 25. The medical support concept will integrate DoD medical support capabilities, including the USNS COMFORT, two additional Role III med/surgical capabilities, and two Role II med/surgical capabilities with HHS capabilities in a regional support model to alleviate strain on local hospitals.
U.S. Northern Command reported, yesterday, that it had 11 flights scheduled to transport approximately 310,000 meals, 150,000 liters of water, generators, tarps, additional sustainment units, and leading components of aviation command and control.
Gov. Rossello, during yesterday's press conference in San Juan, continued to praise the federal response. The distribution of food and water is a testament to the cooperation between commonwealth and federal capabilities, Rossello said. “It is critical that we can establish what the needs are, what the expectations are and that we can guarantee that the food and water are being delivered to the people of Puerto Rico,” he said. There are still communities where the roads are blocked by landslides or where roads were washed out, he said. “One of the main efforts that the DoD will take on is making sure that we can air supply food and water to those communities while we establish direct connection through the roads,” Rossello said.