National Guard head: Puerto Rico clean-up will ‘challenge the system’
U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — The clean-up efforts for U.S. territories following Hurricane Maria are expected to be far more complicated and lengthy than those for Florida and Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, according to the head of the National Guard Bureau.
Gen. Joseph Lengyel said Monday that it will be “a harder response scenario” to restore power and necessary infrastructure, likely taking months.
“Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are not Texas and Florida. They’re out here in the middle of the ocean. It’s more complicated to get people here, it’s more complicated to fix the power grids, it’s more complicated to fix a whole lot of other things,” Lengyel told The Hill while traveling to St. Croix to meet with government officials and assess the damage.
“This response in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is going to challenge the system.”
Seven people have been killed in the Virgin Islands and 16 in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria earlier this month.
On the ground in St. Croix, downed power lines littered the roadside, roofs were missing and trees were mangled and ripped of all foliage.
A cruise ship contracted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sat at a dock off shore, meant to house 1,400 troops and personnel coming to the island.
Outside a local high school, hundreds of residents lined up for military ready-made meals and water. About 10,000 were served on Saturday, before grocery stores opened on Sunday.
Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp (R) described the six days following Maria as “horrendous,” with 80 percent of the islands’ power distribution systems destroyed.
“Two [Category] 5 hurricanes come through, 12 days apart,” Mapp told reporters in St. Croix.
“We need a lot of support in terms of how we’re going to coordinate getting food here. We’re really rushed wrapping up on a plan on how we’re going to rebuild resiliently as opposed to rebuild fast,” he said.
The islands are now 90 to 100 percent without power, and Lengyel expects it will be “more than a month” until electricity is fully restored.
For now, the primary Guard mission is search and rescue, food and water distribution, and standing up operations and communications.
Hurricane Irma earlier this month hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm, followed by Florida and Georgia, causing more than 55 deaths.
Maria followed through the Caribbean less than two weeks later, also a Category 5 storm, further trashing the already ravaged U.S. territories.
Clean-up efforts on the islands are hindered by the presence of significantly fewer forces than in the continental United States, with additional troops who must be flown in instead of driven, Lengyel said.
Puerto Rico has only 1,375 Guard troops to help on an island with a population of nearly 3.5 million.
The Virgin Islands, meanwhile, have roughly 1,200 troops — 800 from out of state — across St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.
Texas, in comparison, had a high of 20,000 National Guard forces, including 12,000 from Texas alone, to aid after Hurricane Harvey.
Lengyel met with FEMA Administrator Brock Long, White House Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert, Mapp and Virgin Islands National Guard Adjutant Gen. Brig. Gen. Deborah Howell.
After the meeting, Lengyel told reporters Mapp was happy with the support he was receiving from the federal government and was asking for more security forces to combat looting following Maria.
Another 1,000 to 1,500 troops are expected to be in the Virgin Islands in the coming days.
“They’re requesting everything they need and all the [documents] have been signed. I expect that they’re flying those forces in here over the next week,” he said.