© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
News Partners

Puerto Rico Relief Effort Replays Scene From Katrina, Retired General Says


President Trump took a step today to try to make it easier to ship supplies to Puerto Rico as it recovers from Hurricane Maria. He has waived a law that dates back to 1920, called the Jones Act. This was a law that put restrictions on maritime traffic in and out of ports in Puerto Rico. U.S. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the move in a tweet this morning, saying it is effective immediately. This comes as officials in Puerto Rico are still struggling to provide the basics - food, water, fuel and medicine.

One group trying to help is a global health organization called AmeriCares. Their emergency response manager, Tom Cotter, talked to us from San Juan, where he's delivering medicine to hospitals and clinics around the island.

TOM COTTER: Peoples' normal medical needs, every day that they had before the storm, haven't stopped. People with diabetes still have diabetes. And people with hypertension still have hypertension.

MARTIN: And with a lack of clean water and sanitation, there is an increased need for antibiotics. But the phones are down. The Internet is down. So Cotter says the only way his team could fully assess shortages in hospitals was to just go down in person.

COTTER: We arrived on the island with hundreds of pounds of duffel bags filled with medical supplies, then delivering it to doctors and to patients and then prepare for this next shipment.

MARTIN: This next shipment will contain 10 tons of supplies from AmeriCares headquarters in Connecticut. Meanwhile, the federal response to the disaster in Puerto Rico has been criticized for being too slow. Our next guest agrees. Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore, led the disaster response to Hurricane Katrina once the military was put in charge. He joins us now on Skype.

General, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

RUSSEL HONORE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the federal response has been slow to start, but relief efforts have been stepped up in the past few days. Can you give us your assessment of how things have been going?

HONORE: Well, I think - first to recognize everybody realizes this is a difficult situation - but the instrument I think we need to solve this problem is the expeditionary logistics capacity of the Department of Defense. Unfortunately, there's an old saying say about America - we always do the right thing; we're just slow about doing it. And we're replaying that scene from Katrina in deploying the Department of Defense in to helping the people of Puerto Rico. Yesterday, the department did appoint a commander, Brigadier General Kim from Army North - out of Northcom. That being said, it's going to take time for him to get there and get himself situated. In the meantime, the force is only about 2,200 federal troops were in support of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Island as of yesterday.

MARTIN: How many do you think they need?

HONORE: Puerto Rico is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina. And we had 20,000 federal troops, 20 ships and 40,000 National Guard. Now you figure that out.

MARTIN: So you would say at least double what's currently there?

HONORE: Absolutely. And it failed for me to understand the slow response than the measured response when the entire grid is down. I don't think we've ever had a situation, other than Katrina where 80 percent of the city of New Orleans was out, was under water and the entire grid was down. That being said, this is more difficult to respond to because you got about 1,200 miles of ocean between the east coast of the United States and Puerto Rico. It makes it pretty difficult to get there. It takes time with ships, and we started moving about four days too late. And the air bridge is being set. They've really ramped that up in the last 24 hours. That should make a difference. But you need internal distribution. You need about - you need at least 50 to 80 helicopters in the there.


In our seconds remaining, let me ask you - with the hurricanes that hit Houston and then Florida, it seemed that some of the lessons of Katrina were learned. People were evacuated early in some cases. Hospitals were stocked with food and supplies. Why didn't that happen in Puerto Rico?

HONORE: I tell you, Florida was a textbook case. They maneuvered on Hurricane Irma. General Calhoun of the Florida Guard, he magnificently maneuvered his guard in position before the storm came, opened shelters.


HONORE: They didn't do that in Harvey. So why we didn't do that in...

MARTIN: Maria.

HONORE: ...In P.R. and V.I., I don't know. But it's - they've got to catch up.

MARTIN: Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore - he was the U.S. commander in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Thanks for your time.

HONORE: Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.