Delay in aiding Puerto Rico is inexcusable
Richard Parker: Washington had military ready when storms hit Haiti and Florida
This is not putting America f irst. Despite President Donald Trump’s glowing remarks, his administration has been recklessly slow to deploy the military to relieve the crushing blows Hurricane Maria dealt to more than 3 million Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The military response to Maria has been thoroughly botched compared to previous efforts — even in foreign countries.
Somewhere between the White House and the Pentagon, someone dropped the ball.
The weather forecasts for all three major hurricanes this year were accurate and timely. It’s one of the reasons that the weather company AccuWeather has taken a public position on the devastating costs.
“Public officials have been underplaying this,” company vice president Jonathan Porter told me after Harvey. “The meteorological community forecast this event days in advance. So, it’s been disappointing to see the reaction.” But don’t just take his word. Or stop with Harvey.
“We always do the right thing. We’re just slow about doing it. We’re replaying a scene from Katrina,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré bluntly said on National Public Radio about Maria. Yes, that Honoré, the hero of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In this case, he said, “We started moving about four days too late.”
Here’s the evidence. The USS Kearsarge, Wasp, Oak Hill and the embarked 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit only put an advance party ashore to assess and provide air control on Sept. 21, the day after the storm. Only afterward could they begin relief operations, which finally appear to have begun in earnest. But an entire aircraft carrier and more ships that sailed for Florida for Irma did not go on to Puerto Rico.
So, the USS Kearsarge and company were left alone. And impressive as it is, a single amphibious group sustains a relatively small number of Marines, not 3.4 million people. Yes, Mr. President, Puerto Rico is surrounded by an ocean. And so far, you give yourself “A-pluses” for the response to Maria, and claim your team is “doing a very good job.” That’s nice. The military leadership, namely Joint Chiefs chairman Joseph Dunford, have squawked that the ports and airports aren’t readily accessible.
Maybe. Yet a relatively small number of military flights — three to six daily until now — landed in the capital, San Juan. Now they are ramping up. And yes, the vast majority of old military facilities in the American territory are shuttered. But there are 15 airports or airfields in Puerto Rico, including on the smaller islands of Culebra and Vieques. The Culebra airport is short but big enough for large helicopters.
The Vieques airport, however, has a runway 4,300 feet long. That’s long enough for a C-130 airplane, which needs a runway just 3,000 feet long and 60 feet wide. The comparatively small Coast Guard has even reportedly been landing in Vieques with meals and water. Government satellite photos show the runway clear of debris.
By the Pentagon’s own count Wednesday, nine airports in Puerto Rico were open. Only Thursday did the Northern Command announce that it was “adjusting” from a small seaborne operation to a larger airlift. Three harbors in Puerto Rico and eight in the Virgin Islands were serviceable. And it’s not as if the U.S. military isn’t capable of launching huge humanitarian efforts in rough circumstances short of combat.
We’ve even done it for foreign countries: namely Haiti. On Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti was struck by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Within seven days, the United States had 17 ships, 48 helicopters, 10,000 sailors, Marines and troops both afloat and ashore with 12 fixed-wing aircraft flying in. We airlifted 15,000 U.S. citizens and 223 Haitians. Talk about rough: Haiti was shattered and littered not just with troddendown and broken roads, communications and infrastructure, but hundreds of thousands of dead bodies and disease vectors. And yes, Haiti is surrounded by the exact same ocean.
But in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, American citizens are waiting and the USNS Comfort hospital ship won’t even arrive until next week? And reservist units specifically trained for long-term humanitarian relief ? As of this writing, forget about it. We put 60,000 federal and reserve troops into New Orleans after Katrina, Honoré said. Puerto Rico will need far more, he continued. “You do the math.”
I’m not blaming the military. It goes where it’s told with robust capability. I’ve seen it in peace and war; the Kearsarge was my home away from home during the Kosovo War in 1999. But somebody in Washington is most certainly not putting Americans first. And my money is on the big guy with the red ball cap.
Richard Parker is a writer in Austin and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America. He is a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News. Twitter: @richardparkertx