After what many critics called a slow and inadequate response in the Puerto Rico relief effort, the U.S. military has started to withdraw forces from the island, transitioning from immediate emergency relief operations to longer-term recovery.
“We’ve already sent [back] two ships that were here initially from the beginning,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the U.S. commander for Army North, the Department of Defense’s primary liaison to FEMA, said in an exclusive interview with VICE News. “In the coming weeks, we’ll start redeploying assets as we’re no longer needed.”
The military has delivered food, water, and supplies to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria tore through the island 40 days ago. But since mid-October, about 1,600 troops and 13 aircrafts have left, according to Buchanan. Eventually, all active-duty troops will leave Puerto Rico, although the timing depends on a number of factors. Some aid workers on the ground, however, still consider Puerto Rico an emergency situation and worry it’s too early for troops and equipment to pull out.
When Lt. Gen. Buchanan first arrived, on Sept. 28, the U.S. military had 4,100 troops and 25 aircrafts in Puerto Rico. By the peak in mid-October, there were a little over 15,000 troops and 72 aircrafts. Two naval ships, the USS Wasp and the USS Oak Hill, also left Puerto Rico on Oct. 26. As of Monday, 13,400 troops and 59 aircrafts remain assigned to Puerto Rico. These numbers included active-duty troops of all branches, the National Guard, and Reserve troops.
Buchanan said the federal military would be the first to fully leave Puerto Rico, while the National Guard will remain longer, along with FEMA, the federal agency responsible for long-term recovery, which will likely be on the island for years to come. To date, the agency has hired 1,730 people for positions in Puerto Rico, according to Ron Roth, FEMA’s External Affairs Officer, although the agency’s response has also come under public scrutiny.
“When FEMA is the first responder and the primary responder for many weeks, we’re never going to move as fast as anybody would like, and I recognize that,” FEMA director Brock Long said when he testified before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “Progress is being made, but we have a long way to go.”
As of Tuesday, roughly 70 percent of Puerto Ricans have no electricity, and 20 percent are without water. Though it’s a marked improvement from the earlier days — when the entire island didn’t have power and nearly 50 percent didn’t have water — aid workers fear the military is withdrawing too early and say Puerto Ricans are still suffering.
Alison Thompson, a doctor who founded a grassroots aid organization called Third Wave Volunteers, has led a medical team across some of the worst-hit municipalities — like Aguadilla, Utuado, Humacao — for weeks. It’s “way too early for the military to be pulling out of PR,” she said. She’s specifically worried about power, water, and security on the island.
“People are locked in their house cages at night, and they are scared,” Thompson added. “Energy and water are the key to Puerto Rico right now and the desalination water units the military provide are also in high demand to hospitals and nursing homes with many of the dam channels broken.”
President Trump tweeted on Oct. 12 that FEMA, the military, and first responders can’t be in Puerto Rico “forever.” Several days later, Trump said the military “shouldn’t have to be” distributing food and water.
Though Buchanan declined to directly respond to Trump’s comments, he echoed the sentiment that the military is capable of disaster relief but delivering aid isn’t its primary purpose.
“We have electricians in the Army, but we’re not an army of electricians,” Buchanan said. “So our purpose in the military is really to fight and win the nation’s war.”
Buchanan added that the federal military has been in Puerto Rico about “five times” as long as it was in Texas after Hurricane Harvey and Florida after Irma, where troops supported the response for 10 days and a week, respectively.
Cover image: Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan speaks at the government command center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 11, 2017. (Juan Luis Martinez for GDA via AP Images)