By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2017 — Federal officials in Puerto Rico stressed today that the island has suffered catastrophic damage and that it will take time to recover from the devastation Hurricane Maria wrought upon the commonwealth.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the joint force land component commander on the island, said military forces of all components are working closely with civilian authorities to serve the people of Puerto Rico.
Buchanan -- the Defense Department's liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency-led effort -- and other officials spoke with reporters via phone from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Food, water and medicines are moving to regional support centers throughout the island, said John Rabin, the FEMA Region 2 director. "We are continuing to support the governor's priorities of saving lives, sustaining lives, moving food and water, hospital assessments, and providing diesel fuels to hospitals. We are doing this all in partnership with the Department of Defense, our Puerto Rican colleagues, as well as all the other federal family."
Puerto Rico National Guardsmen and active duty personnel are important in getting commodities from regional support centers to the people who need it – the so-called "last mile."
Buchanan took command of all DoD forces working in direct support of FEMA when he arrived last night. Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson, the commander of U.S. Northern Command, had determined that it was time to switch from a maritime-based command to a land command. "We have currently 4,500 troops – it might be up to 4,600 – on the ground from all services and all components," Buchanan said. "Our capability is building every single day, and we will keep building until we have fully met the needs of the people of Puerto Rico."
Rabin said the dual-status commander structure is in place to ease command and control of National Guard Title 32 troops and active duty Title 10 forces. "We are able to put both federal and state forces together under the command and direction of one officer," Buchanan said. "Things are working great. We have excellent unity of effort, and we can focus on meeting the peoples' needs. It's a total force commitment: all services, all components."
Service members are working to clear roads and to open seaports and airports, and they are ensuring food, water and other necessities reach the people who need them the most.
Commonwealth and federal experts have assessed 69 hospitals on the island. One is deemed fully operational, 59 are functional, though partially degraded, four hospitals are closed, and five more hospitals are still undergoing assessment.
The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort left Norfolk, Virginia, today and should arrive in Puerto Rico next week.
Eight of Puerto Rico's nine airports are open, and five of six priority seaports are open as well. The power grid is recovering, but it is still having problems. As the grid gets electrified, more damage is spotted, and it must be fixed. The electrical grid is in worse shape on the eastern part of the island. "The transmission grid will have to be rebuilt across the whole island," Rabin said.
Fuel deliveries have been increasing, and more than 500 service stations are open on the island. Military personnel are ensuring diesel fuel is delivered to critical nodes to keep generators going for facilities such as hospitals, command and control centers and airport control towers.