Puerto Rico Dam Under Threat as Military Expedites Hurricane Response

Water drains from the Guajataca Dam in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (AP Photo)
Water drains from the Guajataca Dam in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (AP Photo)

Travelers swarmed the sweltering San Juan airport in Puerto Rico Monday to get off the island where flooding and devastation from Hurricane Maria have blocked roads and knocked out power and communications.

At least 10 persons have been confirmed dead in the Category 5 storm that made a direct hit on Puerto Rico following the glancing blow earlier from Hurricane Irma.

The most immediate concern Monday was in the island's northwest, where the damaged Guajataca Dam was barely holding. About 70,000 residents in the area have been under an evacuation order since last Friday.

"Some of the dam has fallen apart," said Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rosselló. "Now we are making sure that we can assess if the other part will fall down as well."

The Pentagon said that technical experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had conducted a preliminary inspection of the dam and were working closely with Puerto Rican officials to monitor the status of the dam and make assessments for repairs.

Rosello called on Congress to approve an emergency aid bill to help the island and its 3.4 million U.S. citizen residents to recover from the worst hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than a century.

"Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and we need to take swift action," Rosello told CNN. "This is a major disaster."

The National Weather Service (NWS) said Monday that Hurricane Maria was expected to "come close to portions of North Carolina" by mid-week with tropical storm-force winds before turning eastward into the open Atlantic.

Night satellite photos posted by NWS showed nearly the entire island of Puerto Rico blacked out due to the failure of the power grid, with the exception of much-reduced lighting in the San Juan area supplied by generators.

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Federal Emergency Management Director Brock Long was expected to arrive in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands Monday to assess the damage and plan long-term relief. President Donald Trump last week said he would go to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- as he did in trips to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma -- but no date has been set.

At the direction of FEMA and local governors, U.S. Northern Command was overseeing the military response in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico while U.S. Southern Command, through the State Department, was playing a similar role in the Leeward Islands.

Puerto Rico's Federal Affairs Administration said 4,000 members of the U.S. Army Reserves have been deployed to the island to help with Hurricane Maria recovery.

The Department of Defense said that about 2,600 personnel had deployed across the Caribbean to aid in relief and recovery.

The Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) led by the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge with Marines aboard from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, had conducted eight medical evacuations, 123 airlifts and delivered 22,200 pounds of relief supplies and cargo to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands through early Monday, DoD said.

On Sunday, the ARG deployed Marine and Navy teams to the former Naval Air Station at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico -- now a civilian airport -- to conduct route reconnaissance, clearance of main roads and clearance of the airfield and associated taxiways.

In addition, the Navy was working with the Coast Guard to clear the San Juan port while U.S. Transportation Command was moving additional personnel and equipment to include eight UH-60 helicopters from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, to the San Juan, Puerto Rico, International Airport to increase distribution capacity.

On Sunday, U.S. Northern Command said that Air Force had deployed a Regional Air Movement Coordination Center (RAMCC) to the U.S. Virgin Islands to support hurricane relief efforts.

The RAMCC is responsible for coordinating all U.S. military, commercial, governmental and non-governmental aircraft flow control into and out of the ramp area at the airports in St. John and St. Croix, and also provide aircraft landing and take-off times and coordinated air traffic control with various civilian agencies.

For Hurricane Maria, the Air Force through Saturday had flown 10 missions consisting of 20 sorties delivering nearly 100 short tons, or 200,000 pounds of equipment and supplies.

Air Force Col. Christopher Karns, a spokesman for Air Mobility Command, also released an update on AMC's response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

For Hurricane Harvey, the AMC flew more than 156 sorties on 30 airplanes, moving 2.7 million pounds of supplies, while offloading 457,000 pounds of fuel, and transporting 1,213 passengers, Karns said.

For Hurricane Irma, AMC has flown 148 missions involving nearly 500 sorties and accumulating nearly 5,000 flight hours. The command has transported 2,380 passengers, more than 2,700 short tons of equipment, supplies, and food, which equates to 5.4 million pounds of cargo.

Gen. Carlton Everhart, the AMC commander, said in a statement that "these missions demonstrate our values and leave a lasting positive impression on those we help. The amount of good that mobility Airmen deliver deeply reflects the core values of our nation."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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