The problem in getting desperately-needed water, food and fuel to the people of Puerto Rico is not one of supply but of demand for trucks and drivers, White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said Thursday.
The supply is already there, stacked up in thousands of containers at the port of San Juan, but the demand for trucks and drivers to distribute the relief has not been met, Bossert said at a White House news conference.
"There's still a shortfall," Bossert said, and "that is drivers for all those trucks." Then there is the problem of clearing flooded-out and blocked roads.
He said that "the challenge becomes land-based distribution." It was especially difficult in the island's interior, Bossert said.
In the eighth day since Hurricane Maria hit, knocking out power and communications for the island's 3.4 million U.S. citizen residents, more than 10,000 containers have stacked up in the yards at the San Juan port.
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"It makes me sad and frustrated," Jose Pache Ayala, vice president of Crowley Puerto Rico Services, told CNBC. "Just to see that we have here all these goods, and that people out there are just begging, anxious, in the need of such important supplies, and they are all sitting here in this yard."
"I understand the coverage in some cases is giving the appearance we are not moving fast enough," Bossert said of the growing criticism of the U.S. response.
"What I will tell you is we are mobilizing and marshaling the resources of the United States of America in a way that is absolutely professional and fast and adequate to meet the needs," Bossert said.
U.S. Northern Command, which has been overseeing the relief effort, announced Thursday that a three-star general was being sent to Puerto Rico on a temporary basis to take charge as the military shifts from sea-based to land-based recovery operations.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan, NorthCom's Joint Force Land Component Commander, will now serve as the Defense Department's main liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for relief efforts on the ground, NorthCom said.
Buchanan was expected to arrive in Puerto Rico late Thursday. He will replace Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes, the Expeditionary Strike Group 2 commander, as NorthCom's main liaison to FEMA but Hughes will continue to oversee sea-based operations aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, NorthCom said.
The Defense Department also said that the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which had been expected to take a week to bring on crew and supplies, was now expected to leave port in Norfolk, Virginia, for Puerto Rico on Friday and arrive early next week.
At the White House, Bossert emphasized the bottleneck at the port in part to explain President Donald Trump's initial hesitation in authorizing a suspension of the Jones Act, which requires shipments between U.S. ports to be carried by American vessels, to meet the crisis in Puerto Rico.
Trump on Thursday issued a 10-day waiver of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it was a matter of national defense to speed aid to the island.
Bossert said Trump was responding to the plea of Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosello that the waiver would help in the long-term recovery of the island.
Rosello also spoke by phone Thursday with Deputy Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan, the Defense Department said in a statement.
"The leaders discussed the rapid deployment of additional response capacity, expanding airfield throughput, and positioning key DoD leaders in Puerto Rico," the statement said.
The death toll from Hurricane Maria and its aftermath has risen from 10 to 16, Bossert said, and the fear was that the count would increase as hospitals struggle to maintain generator power and thousands of residents go without water.
The Pentagon currently estimates that 44 percent of the island's residents lack safe drinking water.
Bossert said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now had full responsibility for restoring power and the grid in Puerto Rico. "They've been given the mission" by federal authority to bring back power, transmission and distribution, Bossert said of USACE.
USACE was also supplying 900 "super sandbags" to shore up the Guajataca Dam in the northeastern part of the island that has been in danger of failing. Each "super sandbag" weighs about 5,000 pounds, according to USACE.
The power vacuum extends to the San Juan International Airport, where flights have been limited and travelers looking to get off the island have been sleeping in sweltering airport corridors waiting for tickets.
NorthCom said that an Air Force C-5C was arriving Thursday with a Federal Aviation Administration generator to support radar approach control operations. The generator will enhance air traffic control capacity and increase in and out of San Juan and surrounding airports, NorthCom said.
In addition, an Air Force C-17 was arriving at San Juan with the U.S. Coast Guard Mobile Medical Unit, a fast-response emergency medical platform that deploys to highly-impacted areas during a disaster, NorthCom said.
On the eastern end of the island, Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit off the Kearsarge were operating out of the former Naval Air Station at Roosevelt Roads to clear debris and open roads, NorthCom said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.