SAN JUAN – The general in charge of the United States Army troops deployed to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria says the natural disaster on that Caribbean island is the worst he has confronted thus far in his career.
Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan made those remarks in an interview with EFE in San Juan, noting that he had participated in recovery efforts in Texas after Hurricane Harvey and in Florida following Hurricane Irma prior to his mission on the US commonwealth.
He said he was heading the military contingent assisting the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Puerto Rican government in getting the situation back to normal after the Category 4 hurricane pummeled the island on Sept. 20, destroying its electrical grid and other infrastructure and causing nearly 50 deaths.
Nearly 80 percent of the economically distressed island, which has been in recession for a decade and filed for a form of bankruptcy protection in May, still is without power a month after the storm.
Buchanan said the logistics involved in getting aid supplies to an island has been the main difficulty in Puerto Rico, noting that the commonwealth’s ports and airport first needed to be opened and that delivering aid by road was not an option.
But he said the flow of relief supplies had picked up and that he now has 14,000 troops under his command – compared to 4,000 in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane – and a fleet of more than 60 helicopters.
“Things have changed over these three weeks. That doesn’t mean the situation is good, but things are improving every day and more roads are opening,” he said, adding that virtually the entire island now is accessible by road.
Buchanan said he believed all of the island’s 78 municipalities had ample supplies of food and water, although he said if informed about an area experiencing shortages he was prepared to launch an airborne operation.
The general said the local government and FEMA would determine when the emergency situation ends but that that latter federal agency could remain on the island for months and even years to contribute to a full recovery.