De­lay in aid­ing Puerto Rico is in­ex­cus­able

Richard Parker: Wash­ing­ton had mil­i­tary ready when storms hit Haiti and Florida

The Dallas Morning News - - Viewpoints -

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

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