WASHINGTON -- Military personnel helping the people of Puerto Rico have made great progress since Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20, said Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the commander of ground forces on the island. However, he added the scale and scope of devastation caused by the storm was so great that much remains to be done.
"When I got here two weeks ago, we had 25 helicopters and 4,500 troops," the general said in a phone interview from the island. "Now we have 68 helicopters and 14,300 troops. We're getting a lot done, but we have a long way to go."
Hurricane Maria was devastating to Puerto Rico. Coming just two weeks after Hurricane Irma, about 80,000 residents were still without electricity when Maria made landfall. It knocked down trees everywhere, and the heavy rain caused landslides, which cut off many communities in the interior of the island. Puerto Rico's electrical grid was destroyed in the storm, leaving the entire island without power.
The general has been working shoulder-to-shoulder with Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rossello and the Federal Emergency Management Agency team, he said.
Most of the troops in the U.S. commonwealth are logisticians, medical specialists and aviation specialists, Buchanan said. Military personnel are still getting food, water and fuel to the people who need it. "We bring supplies in [to the major ports] and we distribute to regional staging areas with FEMA," he said. "The Puerto Rican National Guard pushes it out from there."
The military is also delivering commodities by air. "We had to do that early on because a lot of areas were cut off," the general said. Most communities are now being supplied via road, but there are still some remote communities where the roads are blocked.
Clearing the roads is the next big project, the general said. "We've been doing this all along, but it is complicated," he said. "It's been raining a lot, and once a route is cleared, there has been so much rain in the mountains that often there are more landslides, which close the route again."
"There are lots of volunteers out clearing routes, but we're using Marines, Army Reserve Soldiers and Puerto Rican Army National Guard [to do] the bulk of the work," the general said.
Over the past week, the fuel situation has largely returned to normal, Buchanan said. Most gas stations have reopened and people who once waited up to seven hours for fuel can now just drive up.
Providing medical facilities has been a priority. A combat surgical hospital is operating in the southeastern part of the island, the general said. The hospital serving that portion of the island was destroyed when Marie came ashore. Air Force medical personnel are setting up in the northwestern part of the island, he said, and the medical crew aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort has seen more than 100 patients since arriving in the region. More help is coming in, Buchanan noted, as eight pallets of medical supplies are expected to arrive on the island today.
The huge problem is electrical power. It is the proverbial long pole in the tent, especially when dealing with recovery, the general said. Maria toppled tens of thousands of electrical poles -- many made out of cement or embedded in cement. Trees crashed into lines, bringing them down. In some areas, the electrical wires look like giant rolls of string, he said.
"It will be months before we rebuild the electrical grid," Buchanan said. "FEMA asked the Army Corps of Engineers to take the lead in that, not necessarily with military power guys, but with contracts with local workers."
The electrical grid impacts every area from communications to water purification. The general said the military is purifying water locally and distributing it out to the communities, but this is inefficient. The short-term solution is to get generators up and running at the water treatment plants so the water system works again. The long-term solution is to get these plants -- and other critical infrastructure like sewage treatment -- back on the electrical grid.
Buchanan said he has the resources he needs to accomplish the mission. He has three times the number of helicopters and twice as many troops in Puerto Rico as he did in responding to Hurricane Harvey in Texas. "We've got sufficient troops to do what needs to be done," he said.
More National Guard forces are flowing onto the island, so he expects the numbers of troops to rise. As that happens, the number of active-duty troops will decrease. Buchanan said that he has gotten everything he has asked for from U.S. Northern Command and the Defense Department.
NEIGHBORS HELPING NEIGHBORS
As recovery continues, the soldiers will stop doing jobs that really belong to local citizens, he said. In many cases, Puerto Ricans are doing those jobs now, the general noted. "You don't want a Soldier driving a fuel truck," he said. "The long-term solution is having the local Puerto Rican citizen driving the truck. That's money that will go to the local economy."
Debris removal is an example. While the military clears the roads, service members do not do debris removal. FEMA contracts with local citizens to do debris removal.
Buchanan said the relationship with FEMA has been excellent. "We're connected on all levels," he said. "Daily I go out on what we call disaster area circulations and FEMA goes with me every single day. This gives them access to the mayors they may not see regularly. The beauty of the FEMA guys being there is they can also solve the problems that are theirs to solve. If I didn't have them with me, I would have to go back and pass a problem to someone else. We can do this on the spot."
Buchanan said he meets with the governor every day and reviews priorities.
The general has only been in the commonwealth for two weeks, but noted an important fact: "Communities are very tight and family is very important," he said. "It requires families and communities to get together to rebuild this place. And that is what I am seeing. Everywhere I go I see neighbors out helping neighbors. That's what it is going to take to help this island get back on its feet."