The U.S. Army will take over recovery operations in Puerto Rico. On Wednesday, the U.S. Northern Command appointed Army Brig. Gen. Richard Kim to serve as overall operations manager. The Army will see to every part of the huge effort to recover from what has been termed the worst natural catastrophe for Puerto Rico and one of the worst in US history. General Kim will coordinate with Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rossello, as well as FEMA, National Guard units, and other federal agencies engaged in the recovery efforts.
Hurricane Maria made landfall on the eastern end of the island commonwealth more than one week ago. Most of the island's electrical grid is off-line, as are its cellphone towers. While the sea ports are open, the clogged and damaged roads in Puerto Rico are hampering efforts to transport goods and services to remote parts of the island. Fuel for automobiles and generators is also scarce.
While about 2,600 U.S. military personnel and National Guards are working in the relief, Gen. Russel Honore (ret.) told NPR on Thursday that many more troops are needed. Honore led the military in post-Katrina relief in Louisiana during the George W. Bush administration. “Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina,’ Honore said. The retired Army general said that after Hurricane Katrina, he commanded 20,000 federal troops and 40,000 National Guard. He theorized that twice that number are needed in Puerto Rico.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump temporarily waived the Jones Act of 1920, which prohibits foreign ships and crews from shipping goods between American ports. The problem currently may not be a shortage of ocean-going ships to ferry goods to the stricken island: the port of San Juan is now filled with more than 2,000 containers that cannot move inland because of the dire shortage of diesel fuel for trucks and drivers.
Without electricity, Puerto Rico's banks are nearly paralyzed. The island has become a cash-only economy, while citizens seek to buy scarce fuel, food, and potable water. The few operational ATMs have limited withdrawals from $500 to $100. Banco Popular of Puerto Rico is offering to give $50 per person in need, which will be withdrawn from accounts later.
The airport at San Juan is now a makeshift refugee camp. Tourists are stranded and stand in lines at airline desks, hoping for commercial flights. Some tourists claim that airlines are charging as much as $1500 for flights to the mainland United States. Normally, the cost of a single round-trip ticket between Miami and San Juan for a one-week stay can cost as little as $354. There are reports that 30 commercial flights can be expected on Friday. Anxious tourists and Puerto Ricans are waiting outside the terminal. Heavy tropical storms are expected to hit the island over the weekend.
President Trump is expected to arrive on Tuesday.