By Jim Garamone, DoD News, Defense Media Activity
/ Published September 28, 2017
The Puerto Rican government is working closely with federal agencies -- including the Defense Department -- to recover from the catastrophe that was Hurricane Maria, officials on the island said via teleconference today.
DoD personnel were working with Puerto Rican authorities before the storm hit, and they have continued the efforts.
In a phone call with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló today, Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan told the governor that DoD will stay aligned with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's plan to stabilize the situation and sustain life in Puerto Rico, Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a spokesperson for Shanahan, said.
Shanahan made clear that supporting the territory's citizens is a top priority, and that DoD will deploy all needed resources to do so, Higgins said in a statement summarizing the call. The leaders discussed the rapid deployment of additional response capacity, expanding airfield throughput, and positioning key DoD leaders in Puerto Rico, she added. U.S. Northern Command officials announced today that Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, Northcom's land forces component commander, was on his way to Puerto Rico to serve as the DoD liaison to the FEMA effort.
Amphibious Ready Group
A Navy amphibious ready group built around the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and containing the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were among the first to arrive at the island after the storm and immediately fell in with 2,500 members of the Puerto Rico National Guard and members of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Acting under the guidance of FEMA -- the lead federal agency for the disaster -- the sailors and Marines used onboard capabilities to launch search and rescue missions, Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey W. Hughes, the group's commander.
The ships arrived on a devastated island. Maria has been blamed for 16 deaths, and there were no usable seaports or airports when the ships arrived. All electricity was down on the island, and all roads were blocked. There was no way to get water, food or medicines to the 3.5 million people on the island.
The Marines used their air-cushioned boats to come over the beach to begin the process of opening the air and sea ports. Soon after, Air Force transports were able to land to bring needed supplies and equipment to the island.
Roughly 4,500 service members are aiding the recovery effort in Puerto Rico.
The situation has improved, but there is still a long way to go, federal officials said. FEMA and DoD officials -- working side by side with Puerto Rican government leaders -- have reopened airports and seaports. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers electrical generators have been delivered, and food and water are getting to all the municipalities on the island.
Deliveries of food and water remain the highest priorities, officials said.
Army medical evacuation helicopters are arriving on the island, and DoD doctors are working with Puerto Rican medical officials to ensure the hospitals are safe to use. As of 3 p.m. today, 47 of the 69 hospitals on the island have been assessed. The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort is sailing from Norfolk to provide aid and should arrive next week.
John Rabin, the FEMA coordinator, stressed that federal and commonwealth officials are working closely together. He said today was better than yesterday and that he hopes tomorrow will be better than today. All efforts are focused on the people of Puerto Rico and “saving lives, sustaining lives and protecting lives,” Rabin said.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)