WASHINGTON -- On the one week anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s thrashing of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, lawmakers called on President Donald Trump to put a military general in charge of the relief effort as island officials’ pleas turned more desperate.
The lawmakers, led by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York, who is originally from Puerto Rico, sent a letter Wednesday signed by 145 Democratic members of Congress urging the president to assign the senior general, deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and increase personnel to assist local law enforcement.
The request is not unprecedented. Russell Honoré, a now retired three-star general, was put in charge of Hurricane Katrina's response after the Bush administration and state and local agencies were seen as mismanaging relief.
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“As you know, the Department of Defense has additional capabilities that could help alleviate suffering in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and prevent this catastrophe from worsening,” the lawmakers said in their letter.
Assigning a general to command the relief would allow that general to coordinate interagency efforts.
Speaking on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Tuesday night, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz issued what she said was “a big S.O.S.”
She described disarray in the relief effort, saying many rescuers had been left without marching orders and medics had waited for two days before being briefed.
“The red tape needs to be ripped off as if it were a Band-Aid,” she said. “There are boots on the ground … but those boots need to start walking.”
In a news release publicizing the lawmakers' letter, Velazquez noted that Trump congratulated his administration on its response to Hurricane Maria at a news conference Tuesday.
“If President Trump doesn’t swiftly deploy every available resource that our country has, then he has failed the people of Puerto Rico – and this will become his Katrina. Every second in this effort counts and the stakes are too high for further delay, inaction or inefficiency,” Velazquez stated.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who serves on the House Armed Services Committee said he has been speaking to U.S. Northern Command and DOD.
“DOD is fulfilling all that FEMA has asked it to do, but I fear that FEMA doesn’t understand the full scope of what needs to be done,” he said.
In a news conference late Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the conventional method for responding to a storm is for the federal government to plug into the exiting emergency response of a state and work through them. But, he said, it's clear that method can't be applied in this case.
"Every day that goes by for some of these areas that have no have electricity or communications, the situation grows greater," Rubio said. "We need to lean into this a lot more than we traditionally would."
At a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said there is food and water and gasoline on the island. She said search and rescue efforts are complete, so now the focus is on distributing supplies. DHS has asked the Defense Logistics Agency to help augment National Guard troops who are moving goods and gasoline. AT&T is on island to work on restoring cell service.
The electrical grid is more of a challenge, it's "virtually gone," she said.
She said there are 16 ships in the area with Coast Guard and more on the way. There are efforts underway to get ports open. "What DOD is doing is helping us get the supplies there and helping us open access roads," she said. A brigadier general is on site to coordinate on the ground, she said.
She said Trump's decision to waive regulations requiring Puerto Rico to match FEMA disaster relief funds has been critical to getting industry into Puerto Rico. "The electrical industry and others didn't want to go there unless they knew they were going to get paid and this has allowed us to mobilize industry to move forward."
However Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that waiver regulation should have been done when the hurricane hit, given Puerto Rico's already crippled economy.
"Clearly from the financial status of the island, they were going to be in no position to make the match so it's unfortunate that we had to wait this long," she said.