by Robert Windrem, Ken Dilanian and Erik Ortiz
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.
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.
“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.
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