WASHINGTON—Hurricane Maria has nearly decimated Puerto Rico, where, according to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke, “The devastation was nearly complete.” The Trump administration has responded with large-scale relief efforts.
Duke gave an overview of the situation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. response, during a meeting with reporters in Washington on Sept. 28. She was joined by Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert.
Bossert said there are currently 10,000 U.S. federal personnel in Puerto Rico, including 7,200 troops. He said that usually FEMA provides assistance to the governor, but in Puerto Rico’s case, the agency is also assisting the municipal leadership.
“This is a mission about saving the people of Puerto Rico,” Bossert said. While it was an “unprecedented storm,” there is an “unprecedented response.”
Puerto Rico will be built back better, he said.
Duke said that on day one of the crisis, President Donald Trump gave them the guidance of “people first,” and in the relief efforts, “that’s what we’ve been focused on.”
According to the briefings by Duke and Bossert, schools in Puerto Rico are reopening soon, 4 ports are open, 8 airports are open, 67 hospitals are operating, 200 gas stations are open, and one of the main priorities is now to restore electrical power.
Bossert said that although the government may sometimes be giving the appearance of not moving fast enough, there is nothing about the response that could happen faster.
Relief workers now have the food and water needed for the island, Duke said. Their priority the day before was to distribute these goods and to clear debris and landslides to make the deliveries.
Truck drivers have been given security to distribute goods safely, Bossert said. People in need of medical care are mainly being transferred to open hospitals in the island’s northeast, and those in need of critical care are being flown off the island.
Just hours before the press briefing, Duke had signed a 10-day waiver on the Jones Act, which would allow foreign-flagged ships to carry aid to Puerto Rico. The Jones Act (officially called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) requires that goods and services between U.S. ports be carried by United States-flagged ships. Duke said the waiver will “help us with replenishment.”
Duke emphasized the scale of the disaster, noting that while Hurricane Maria was a category 4, it was just “one mile [per hour wind speed] away from being a category 5 hurricane.”
In the aftermath, she said, “Everything has to be prioritized. Hospitals first, gas stations next.”
Duke said, “It’s a hard storm to recover from,” but she is satisfied with the response. “This is such a critical mission,” she said.
According to Duke, they are not currently accepting volunteers since “right now that will clog up the ports,” but she said people can register, to help or donate goods at nvoad.org.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said during a Sept. 28 briefing that in Puerto Rico, “The full weight of the U.S. government is engaged.”
“We will not rest until everyone is safe and secure,” Sanders said. For the people of Puerto Rico, “We are praying for you, we are working for you, and we will not let you down,” Sanders said.