The Pentagon has appointed a senior general to oversee military relief operations in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, even as President Donald Trump’s administration faced calls from lawmakers for a far more robust response to the disaster.
The US territory of 3.4 million people is reeling from Hurricane Maria, which struck on September 20 as the most powerful storm to hit the island in nearly 90 years, causing widespread flooding, completely cutting power and heavily damaging homes, roads and other infrastructure.
The storm claimed more than 30 lives across the Caribbean, including at least 16 in Puerto Rico. Governor Ricardo Rossello has called the scope of the island’s devastation unprecedented.
The US military, which has poured some 4400 troops into the relief effort, including the Puerto Rico National Guard, named Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan to oversee its response on the island.
Buchanan, Army chief for the military’s US Northern Command, was expected to arrive in Puerto Rico on Thursday. He will be the Pentagon’s main liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the US government’s lead agency on the island, and focus on aid distribution, the Pentagon said in a statement.
FEMA has placed the US Army Corps of Engineers in charge of rebuilding the island’s crippled power grid.
Even as FEMA and the US military have stepped up relief efforts, many residents in Puerto Rico have been frustrated over the prolonged lack of electricity, drinking water and other essentials.
Radamez Montanez, a building administrator from the municipality of Carolina, east of capital city San Juan, said he had been without water and electricity at home since Hurricane Irma grazed the island two weeks before Maria. “It’s chaos, total chaos,” he said.
Defending the relief effort, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said 10,000 federal relief workers had arrived in Puerto Rico, including troops, and that 44 of the island’s 69 hospitals were now fully operational.
The Trump administration earlier lifted restrictions for 10 days on foreign shipping from the US mainland to Puerto Rico. While that measure might help speed cargo shipments, Puerto Rico is struggling to move supplies around the island once they arrive.