FEMA: Puerto Rico situation has 'improved significantly'

FEMA: Puerto Rico situation has 'improved significantly'
© Getty Images

Federal emergency relief officials say conditions in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are still challenging but have improved significantly, despite mounting criticism that the Trump administration's response has been inadequate.

The Caribbean territories are still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that hit the islands last week.

"This has been catastrophic, I don’t want to mince words," said John Rabin, acting administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Region II, which covers New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"The damage is significant, it’s terrible and the impact on the U.S. citizens who live here is tremendous," he told reporters on a press call from Puerto Rico.


Rabin said FEMA has been working with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's (D) orders alongside emergency relief teams from the Department of Defense.

The storm knocked out the island's entire aging power grid, blocked roads and left communities isolated.

Rabin said FEMA's priorities in the recovery efforts, which started Friday, were to open sea and air lanes for commodities to arrive on the island, and to rebuild interior supply routes.

The distribution of goods within the island has become a sore spot for critics of the administration's response, as commodities piled up in the ports with local truck drivers unable to reach their places of work.

"On a call with #FEMA hearing excuses. 'No truck drivers to move goods', the military has thousands of drivers. Put them on a plane to PR," tweeted Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) on Thursday.

"There were not enough drivers at the beginning after the storm because they were also affected," said Alex de la Campa, FEMA's Caribbean Area Division director.

"Things have improved significantly since yesterday," he said. "Now we have drivers to take commodities to the different municipalities."

De la Campa added that FEMA has set up 11 distribution centers for food, water and medicine, apart from a central operating center where the operation is coordinated.

Some of the island's 78 municipalities have had to use their own resources to get supplies from those distribution centers, but federal officials say supply lines are now open to every locality, whether by ground, sea or air.

Still, critics on both sides of the aisle say the response has not been up to par with the scope of the disaster.

"The logistical chain in Puerto Rico isn’t just broken, at this point, it is virtually nonexistent. Unless [the Department of Defense] steps in quickly to establish emergency logistical assistance, it is my fear this situation will deteriorate rapidly,” wrote Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former NIC Director Greg Treverton rips US response; WHO warns of 'immediate second peak' if countries reopen too quickly This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting Overwhelming majority of publicly traded firms have not returned small-business loans: review MORE (R-Fla.), who's been active in encouraging increased relief efforts for the territories.

And Democrats spent Thursday demanding a much larger military response, alluding to the Pentagon's operational capabilities in warfare.

"The administration's response has been inexcusably slow and ineffective," said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.).

"This is a real human crisis and we need an immediate federal military response,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.). “United States citizens’ lives are on the line, and we need to respond [with] just that kind of urgency. It is just like a war.”

Federal officials dismissed the criticism, but admitted the operation would continue to be challenging.

"There’s a ton of cascading elements and aspects of what happens in disaster response," said Rabin.

FEMA, the Puerto Rican government and military officials are working to make all hospitals on the island operational by providing diesel for power generators and, in some cases, assessing structural damage.

Telecommunications are also, for the most part, down, but armed forces units are providing military technology to some remote areas as a stopgap measure.

De la Campa said many towns are relying on "rudimentary measures" to get emergency information to their citizens.

FEMA officials said they are relying on logistical assistance from the military to open ports and reach remote areas of the island.

Army Brig. Gen. Richard Kim, deployed to Puerto Rico on Wednesday after a visit to the disaster area by FEMA Administrator Brock Long, said about 4,400 soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are attending the situation.

Kim said the military's role in the operation is transitioning from Navy control to Army control, as staging zones are cleared of debris and ground-based coordination becomes possible.

Rear Adm. Jeff Hughes, who established the first sea-based rescue operations after the storm, said the mission has reached a phase "where it makes sense to transition from a maritime-based operation to a more land-based operation."

Hughes added that the military and FEMA are "in lockstep" with Rosselló's clean-up efforts, but that the governor's instructions were "broad" and military assets are not "in a waiting mode."

Rabin explained that one big challenge was a lack of space to put debris once it was picked up. 

He added that because of those challenges, coming up with metrics for the operation's success is nearly impossible.

"Coming up with specific measures of success is a little bit more difficult when cascading effects [happen]."

"I know that’s not necessarily a satisfying answer, it’s just the reality of dealing with a disaster on an island," said Rabin.