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For Some, Delayed Response to Puerto Rico Has Echoes of Katrina

A lingering lesson in the years after Hurricane Katrina was how the federal government failed to respond effectively in those first crucial days.
Image: Nestor Serrano walks on the upstairs floor of his home, where the walls were blown off
Nestor Serrano walks on the upstairs floor of his home, where the walls were blown off, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 26, 2017. Governor Ricardo Rossello and Resident Commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez, the island's representative in Congress, have said they intend to seek more than a billion in federal assistance and they have praised the response to the disaster by President Donald Trump, who plans to visit Puerto Rico next week, as well as FEMA Administrator Brock Long.Gerald Herbert / AP

The general who ran the U.S. military relief operation after Hurricane Katrina is among the chorus of critics who now say the delay in getting the U.S. military to Puerto Rico is at the heart of the island’s unfolding humanitarian crisis.

“The Navy and Air Force could have been there Sunday,” Ret. Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré said Thursday to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “Could have opened the port, could have opened the air field. Why the hell has it taken this long to do that? That is what we do in the military.”

“There’s something missing in the decision-making process,” he said. “[The cabinet should’ve] come up with a course of action and [called] the president off the damn golf course.”

Honoré said the first problem was not getting materiel to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands before Hurricane Maria struck on Sept. 20.

“The other challenge is we have not scaled up quick enough,” said Honoré.

Related: Mass Exodus From Puerto Rico Feared After Hurricane and Debt Crisis

Honoré's position is shared by emergency management experts in Congress and the private sector. One congressional aide whose committee has oversight over the Pentagon said the administration was slow to move the military and misunderstood the extent of the problem.

"[The cabinet should’ve] come up with a course of action and [called] the president off the damn golf course."

"They assumed that because the Puerto Rican government wasn't asking they didn't need to push it out to them,” said the Hill staffer. “The Puerto Rican government was home guarding their homes. And they had no clue what to ask for... and no way to do it.

"They (the administration) assumed FEMA had it covered, which they do not. They still are not flowing assistance fast enough. This is going to get worse," the staffer said.

And there are other ways the response by the federal government has appeared just as delayed with Maria as it did with Katrina:

  • It's been nine days since Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm. While Congress passed a $10.5 billion aid package within four days of Katrina's landfall, the White House remains "weeks away" from a formal funding request for any Puerto Rico aid package. The White House has said accurately assessing the wreckage remains difficult.
  • Seven days after Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it sent 25 million meal kits, 31 million liters of water and more than 2,700 workers. In contrast, nine days after Maria, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands received 4.4 million meal kits, 6.5 million liters of water and about 600 workers.
  • By the time Katrina made landfall, there were nearly 10,000 National Guard troops on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi, officials said. Ultimately, over 72,000 military and National Guard personnel were deployed. In nine days, there have been 10,000 troops and relief workers dispatched to Puerto Rico.

Complicating the recent federal response is that the government is still grappling with two large storms that hammered the U.S. mainland just weeks before Maria: Hurricane Harvey flooded parts of Texas and Louisiana in August, and Hurricane Irma struck Florida earlier this month.

Irma had also knocked out power to more than 1 million people in Puerto Rico. But Maria, which caused the deaths of 18 on the island, has been far more devastating, particularly since the island has few financial resources since it is already about $74 billion in debt and clamoring for federal assistance.

Related: Puerto Ricans Document Shattered Lives

An emergency management expert with direct knowledge of the situation on the ground said the issue is not that FEMA isn’t doing its job. It’s that there are disasters beyond the capability of a civilian agency.

“They’re doing the best that they can,” he said of the FEMA effort. But the “slowness in turning to the military has been the big problem.”

Image: Destroyed communities are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, Sept. 28, 2017.
Destroyed communities are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, Sept. 28, 2017.Gerald Herbert / AP

“FEMA is thinly resourced without the military in situations like this,” he explained.

Even members of President Donald Trump’s party have been critical of the administration’s delay in involving the military.

“I have and continue to encourage the White House through formal and informal channels to step up the DOD engagement as the lead agency,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told a press conference Thursday.

On Friday, Trump acknowledged that Puerto Rico's local governments are in a bind because they don't have the proper resources to rebuild the already poor infrastructure.

"We will really have to start all over again," Trump said. "We're literally starting from scratch."

Related: Trump Won't Promise to Rebuild Puerto Rico

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who was also tapped to bolster the federal government's response after Katrina, told MSNBC that recovery efforts are hampered because Puerto Rico is an island.

"You're dealing with the tyranny of geography and the tyranny of distance," he said Friday.

Survivors of Katrina, however, were victims of a lack of agencies coming together, Allen said.

"We had resources deployed for almost a week, but they weren't coordinated under a central command control structure that would allow them to be applied to the highest need," he added.

Initially, the Trump administration named a one-star general to run U.S. military operations, then upgraded the command to a three-star Thursday, the same rank Honoré held when he commanded U.S. military operations post-Katrina.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, based in San Antonio, headed to Puerto Rico Thursday evening.

White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert was asked Thursday why it had taken eight days to get a three-star general to Puerto Rico.

Related: White House Bows to Pressure and Waives the Jones Act

"It didn't require a three-star general eight days ago,” he replied.

Honoré said there has to be White House leadership for there to be the required level of urgency, that Trump has to show that he’s in command, “not playing golf.”

“This operation is a lot larger than Katrina. It's something we are missing in the calculations. Eventually, they're going to get it figured out, but the pain and suffering that's going to happen until they get it right is going to be enormous.”