The Pentagon will expand its response to the devastation in Puerto Rico left by Hurricane Maria, deploying a one-star Army general along with more aircraft, a hospital ship and a variety of specialized units all focused on surging relief efforts.
The moves followed a visit by Federal Emergency Management Agency Director William “Brock” Long, and after the U.S. military re-opened two major airfields capable of handling the Pentagon’s massive cargo jets. Army Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim, the deputy commanding general of U.S. Army North, will coordinate operations and make sense of what more is needed, defense officials said.
People in Puerto Rico have been desperate for more help, and many have criticized the federal government’s decision making. Pentagon officials have defended the military’s response, however, saying it has supplied everything FEMA has requested while preparing for a long-term recovery effort.
Combined, there are currently about 5,000 active-duty U.S. service members and National Guardsmen on duty assisting Puerto Rico, including more than a thousand who work from the USS Kearsarge and USS Oak Hill, ships deployed off the coast of Puerto Rico, said Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. Far more were involved in the recent responses to Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey.
Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, called the deployment of the general a “big step forward,” telling Senate lawmakers Wednesday that his presence will help accelerate decision-making on the ground.
The U.S. military also has opened a former base, Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, on the eastern side of the island. The flight line there can accommodate military jets, freeing the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport near San Juan to accept commercial flights to and from the U.S. mainland. That airport was opened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday, and has seen a fleet of incoming military jets since carrying supplies.
“What DOD is doing is helping us get the supplies there, but also helping us open the access roads,” Duke said, referring to the Defense Department. “They also are leading the debris removal, which is huge. We still have areas that we can access by roads.”
U.S. Northern Command, which oversees operations in Puerto Rico, said in a statement…