General Tries to Avoid Political Firestorm over Puerto Rico Relief

Citizen-Soldiers from the Puerto Rico National Guard Army Aviation Support Facility distributed water and food to the community of Orocovis, Sept. 29, 2017. (Photo by Sgt. José Ahiram Díaz-Ramos, PRNG-PAO)
Citizen-Soldiers from the Puerto Rico National Guard Army Aviation Support Facility distributed water and food to the community of Orocovis, Sept. 29, 2017. (Photo by Sgt. José Ahiram Díaz-Ramos, PRNG-PAO)

The three-star Army general in charge of the military response in Puerto Rico had a blunt retort to the increasingly bitter political infighting over the pace of the relief effort: Leave me out of this.

"I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a member of the blue party. I'm not a member of the green party. I'm a soldier and I'm here to help people," Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said.

"The people here need help and we're going to give them all the help we've got," he told PBS after his first helicopter survey Saturday of the devastation inflicted on the island's 3.4 million U.S. citizen residents by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20.

"It's the worst I've ever seen," added Buchanan, who has known wartime destruction in four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, referring to the roofless homes, downed power lines and flooded-out neighborhoods on the island.

"Right now, where we're having the biggest problems are on the interior of the island and it's because of roads," he said. "We obviously need to get all the roads cleared."

Buchanan arrived Friday to take charge of the response as the military shifted from a sea-based to a land-based operation. He immediately became caught up in the recovery politics as San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz seized on his remark that "not enough" was being done to aid residents in need of food, water and medical assistance.

"We're bringing in both Air Force, Navy, and Army medical capabilities in addition to aircraft, more helicopters," Buchanan said on CNN. "It's not enough, and we're bringing more in."

Yulin Cruz, who lost her own home and has been living in a shelter, cited Buchanan's "not enough" statement to dispute President Donald Trump's barrage of Tweets claiming the relief effort was "going well."

Trump accused Yulin Cruz of "poor leadership" and called critics "politically-motivated ingrates." He also suggested that Puerto Ricans should do more for themselves -- "they want everything to be done for them."

In defense of the response, Trump has cited praise from Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rosello, but Rosello appeared puzzled by one of Trump's Tweets on Sunday.

"People are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military. All buildings now inspected for safety," Trump said.

At a briefing early Sunday, Rosello said, "I'm not aware of such inspection. I'm not sure of the context" of Trump's claim, but he went on to say that the president "has not forgotten about the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico."

Trump, who spent the weekend at his Bedminster, N.J., golf course and estate, was expected to visit Puerto Rico and possibly the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday, and Yulin Cruz said she was prepared to meet with him -- if she is asked.

In an update Sunday on operations, the Defense Department said "showers and thunderstorms have recently challenged operations and an additional 3-5 inches of localized rain is possible through Monday."

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USAFE), was now in charge of restoring power in Puerto Rico and would be overseeing temporary power installation, electrical distribution repairs, and infrastructure improvements, the Pentagon said.

Semonite was also in charge of reinforcements for the Guajataca dam in Puerto Rico's northeast, where thousands of residents have been evacuated in case of a collapse. Repairs to erosion in the mostly-earthen dam were expected to begin Sunday, the department said.

Sixteen more helicopters for the relief effort were expected to begin arriving Monday aboard C-5 Galaxy aircraft strategic lift from Fort Bliss, Texas, and additional Navy and Marine Corps rotary aircraft will become available when the amphibious assault ship Wasp arrives off Puerto Rico Tuesday, the Pentagon said.

The hospital ship USNS Comfort, capable of serving 200 patients daily with 522 medical personnel aboard,, was expected to arrive Wednesday, the department said.

On Saturday, Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North, pushed back on critics who charged that his deployment to Puerto Rico was in response to the initial inadequacy of the Trump administration's efforts.

"That's absolutely inaccurate," he told U.S. News. "It's certainly not a symbolic thing. As the land component commander, we're now shifting to a more land-based response, so it's appropriate that my command is appointed command for it."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

Show Full Article

Related Topics

Army Emergencies