Military stretched thin by hurricane relief efforts

Military stretched thin by hurricane relief efforts
© Getty

The Pentagon is taking steps to prevent burnout among military personnel working rescue and recovery missions following a string of devastating hurricanes.

Due to a "significantly higher storm season," it is common for military rescue and recovery personnel "to fly out of one hurricane and into the other," deputy to the chief of Air Force Reserve Maj. Gen. Derek Rydholm told reporters Friday.

Rydholm, who spoke at the Pentagon alongside U.S. Army Corps of Engineers division commander Brig. Gen. Diana Holland, gave reporters an update on the rescue and recovery efforts following Hurricane Maria's battering of Puerto Rico.


"We do have a lot going on, but we're always mindful that we have to balance the different tasks and make sure that we are ready to respond to the next one," Holland said.

It's been a long month for the military's rescue personnel. Maria was the third major storm to hit the U.S. mainland or a territory in recent weeks, following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

At least 10 people were reported killed in Puerto Rico because of Maria, which passed over the island early Wednesday. The U.S. territory — which has roughly 3.4 million residents — is now 95 to 100 percent without power.

About 90 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands are also without power.

In response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has opened an air bridge from the mainland, flying three to four military planes laden with water, food and generators to Puerto Rico daily.

Holland said it will be "many days before we have a good picture on the whole scope" of the damage.

Until then, it will be difficult to anticipate the additional military resources the island will need, she said.  

Military personnel have already been working nonstop to respond to various parts of the United States devastated by a series of storms since August.

Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida and Georgia earlier this month, causing more than 50 deaths. Before that, Hurricane Harvey flooded counties across Texas and Louisiana when it hit in late August.

At its most severe, Harvey reached a peak of Category 4, while Irma became a Category 5. Maria was declared a Category 5 hurricane on Tuesday, but was a Category 4 when it struck land.

Hurricane Jose, a storm that developed at the same time as Irma, has yet to make landfall but is hovering off the coast of Massachusetts.

The National Guard has activated thousands of members in recent weeks to help with rescue and recovery efforts during and after the storms. Puerto Rico activated its 5,200 National Guard troops, while the U.S. Virgin Islands activated its nearly 700-member unit.

Holland said the Army Corps of Engineers has been steadily redeploying personnel out of Texas to Florida, the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.

The military is trying to ease the strain on those troops.

"The people that I have talked to that have gone from storm to storm ... we make sure that they do have an opportunity to go home, to refit, to rest, before they get on the airplane to go to the next storm," said Holland, when asked about concerns the response work is too taxing.

"We're always measuring how many people do you need in Florida because whether they go somewhere else or they redeploy and be ready for a future storm, we're just always mindful of the troop to task and making sure we have the right number that's actually required."

More funding for the recovery efforts will also be needed.

Congress approved $15 billion in disaster recovery aid earlier this month for victims of Harvey.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday that he expects Congress will approve additional emergency aid in October.