Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the three-star officer coordinating the U.S. military relief efforts says the crisis isn’t yet over.
“We are still in the crisis. We're still in an emergency situation,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan said.
Buchanan, the commander of U.S. Army North, spoke with Circa from the convention center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that's serving as headquarters for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and military operations.
On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria tore into Puerto Rico, killing at least 45 people, destroying much of the island's infrastructure and leaving its 3.4 million people desperate for food, safe drinking water and medical attention.
Some three weeks later, aid is still slow to arrive to rural communities. Eighty-three percent of cell towers are down, and only about 10 percent of the U.S. territory's residents have electricity, Puerto Rico's government said Tuesday.
Residents in Naguabo, a town in Puerto Rico's southeast coast, said some of the only relief they had received came in the form of candy rations.
“If I was a Puerto Rican living in the country who hasn't been delivered anything yet, I wouldn't be satisfied with the response.”
Buchanan is an infantry officer who has served four tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan. Before assuming command of U.S. Army North, he served as an adviser to the Iraqi Special Police Commando Division.
Buchanan said some 13,000 troops are on the ground delivering supplies and providing emergency medical care. On whether those were enough troops to get the job done, Buchanan said, "not exactly yet, but most are coming."
The military's role includes medical support, clearing debris from roads, distributing supplies and focusing on restoring power to isolated communities. Buchanan acknowledged there is still a long way to go.
"We haven't been 100% successful. If you're still finding people that haven't been visited, then we're not there yet."
With flooded hospitals overwhelmed and reliant on backup generators, the U.S. Navy is providing medical support with the USNS Comfort, its "floating hospital." The 894-foot-long ship has beds for 1,000 patients and has responded to other disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina.
According to Buchanan, there were 4,100 service members on the ground when he arrived in Puerto Rico. By contrast, the U.S. deployed 8,000 American troops to Haiti within two days of the devastating earthquake in 2010.
A chorus of lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had urged the Trump administration to drastically scale up the federal response and put the Pentagon in charge of the relief efforts.
Buchanan, who had previously deployed to San Antonio to oversee Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, was deployed to Puerto Rico eight days after the Category 4 storm made landfall in Puerto Rico. A one-star general, Amy Brig. Gen. Richard C. Kim, arrived earlier in the week.
Buchanan pushed back on criticism that the military wasn’t involved in the relief effort soon enough.
“We've had people responding from the beginning. It's just it wasn't a land-based guy like me until a week into it,” Buchanan said.
See related stories from Circa:
Maria wiped out 80% of Puerto Rico’s crops. This farmer is keeping things in perspective
After 2 weeks without power in Puerto Rico, eating candy for dinner is the new norm
No roofs, no relief and constant rain: rebuilding Puerto Rico's isolated mountain towns