US militarizes Puerto Rican relief effort
As recovery efforts for Puerto Rico from hurricane Maria enter its third week, the plight of most residents remains perilous. Food and water deliveries are spotty at best, and government officials are pointing the finger at the incompetence of local mayors who are not following through in getting relief supplies to those who need it most.
In response, the U.S. is planning to basically militarize relief efforts, doing the job that local mayors appear incapable of doing.
Responding to the evolving crisis, U.S. military officials spelled out Sunday how they will alter the distribution of food, water and fuel to many of the island's 78 municipalities, militarizing relief efforts in a significant way as some mayors stumble on the job.
Prior to this weekend, relief supplies were delivered to 10 regional staging areas on the island, and mayors were largely responsible for arranging pick-up and distribution.
But Brig. Gen. Jose J. Reyes, assistant adjutant general of the Puerto Rico National Guard, said in an interview that a new strategy calls for placing 10 to 20 soldiers in each municipality, providing them with vehicles and logistical support, and tasking them with delivering relief to each neighborhood.
"We need to push it directly to the barrio to ensure that everyone's getting it," Reyes said. "They will have some vehicles. They will have radio communications as well as logistics support.... They are going to be living there. They are going to be operating 24/7."
In Puerto Rico's 10 largest cities, each with a population greater than 150,000 people, city halls will continue to manage distribution, Reyes said, but not so in the smaller towns.
The commander of relief efforts, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, acknowledged that distribution of aid on the municipal level has not always gone smoothly.
"We're relentless in looking for areas that are bottlenecks," Buchanan said at a San Juan airfield before boarding a helicopter for Aguadilla, some 80 miles to the west of the capital.
"We shouldn't pretend that this is going to be pain-free," he said, noting that mayors can feel a variety of constraints in delivering aid, from damaged roads and lack of vehicles to poor communications and large geographical areas with sparse population.
Some anger was palpable Sunday at the relief distribution scene in Aguadilla. But that sentiment of frustration is not uniform. Some municipalities are handling relief efforts much better than other ones. Among the hardest hit areas from the Sept. 20 hurricane, some are so remote that they require ongoing helicopter air-drops of food and water due to impassable roads.
"There are people who live up in the mountainous areas in the central region that are harder to get to, but we're getting to all of them," Hernandez, the FEMA official, said. U.S. military teams are "doing a phenomenal job with the road clearance."
The efforts to politicize the crisis by the Democratic mayor of San Juan, covering up for her own incompetence, aren't working. Enough aid is apparently on the ground in Puerto Rico, but given the poor state of the island's transportation infrastructure and the slow pace of clearing roads so that aid can be delivered, some of the worst hit areas are being slighted.
That's where the U.S. military, with its superior organizational skills and quiet competence, will ultimately make the difference. They probably won't get the credit they deserve. But once they get rolling, the island will have a faster pace of recovery.