The US Army Corps of Engineers will rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, a FEMA deputy director said.
More than a week after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, the island is dealing with a humanitarian crisis as millions remain without electricity, water or gas.
“We’re not going to rebuild the power grid overnight, but the US Army Corps of Engineers has just been mission-assigned, in the last 24 hours, to do just that,” Deputy Director Daniel Kaniewski told CNN. “In addition to generators and fuel, we have assigned the US Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild” the US commonwealth’s infrastructure.
Most of the island is without power, with the exception of people and facilities using generators, the US Energy Department says. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Thursday that power restoration would be slow because with hits from Maria — and Hurricane Irma earlier in the month — “this infrastructure has honestly collapsed.”
3-star general to lead military’s efforts
At least 16 people have died in Puerto Rico as a result of the storm, Rossello said Thursday.
The Pentagon has appointed Lt. General Jeffrey Buchanan to lead all military hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, US Defense officials said Thursday.
Buchanan is a three-star general and the commander of US Army North (5th Army). Buchanan has served four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday called for the Department of Defense to take over short-term relief and recovery efforts. Rubio acknowledged FEMA’s role in providing federal assistance to local governments, but said the Defense Department is the “only entity capable of executing a recovery effort of this scale and complexity.”
Jones Act waived; some supplies reportedly still at port
President Trump on Thursday authorized a 10-day waiver of the Jones Act, a federal law that limits shipping to US ports by foreign vessels. Puerto Rico’s governor and other US officials had argued that a waiver would expedite the shipping of supplies to the island.
But some supplies appear to be sitting, undistributed, at Puerto Rico’s main Port of San Juan — though CNN has received conflicting information about the number of idle containers.
Jose Ayala, vice president of operations for the Crowley shipping company, told CNN Thursday that at least 10,000 containers were sitting in the San Juan port, filled with “food, water, medical aid, everything.”
Ayala said the containers still at the port held items the port usually brings in — “food, provisions, refrigerated cargo, all kinds of general merchandise foods, furniture, liquor, manufacturing products, all kinds of cargo that we normally get.”
But Omar Marrero, executive director of Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority, said 7,500 containers were sitting at the port Thursday. And Hernan Ayala, president of the Puerto Rico Shipping Association, said none of the idle containers involved aid sent by FEMA.
All FEMA cargo has been dispatched from the port to the rest of the island, Ayala said.
Part of the reason for distribution backlogs at the port is that only 20% of truck drivers have reported back to work since Hurricane Maria swept through, according to a representative for Rosselló.
A diesel fuel shortage and blocked roads also are complicating distribution efforts. Even contacting drivers is a problem because cell towers are down.
Rosselló said Thursday he signed an executive order to allow more flexibility for supply distribution.
Search and rescue
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says its search and rescue teams saved or assisted 843 people in Puerto Rico as of Thursday morning. The US Coast Guard, according to FEMA, saved or assisted 15 people.
As of Thursday morning, 10,114 people were in 160 shelters in Puerto Rico, FEMA said.
Gasoline stations and hospitals
Of 1,100 gas stations in Puerto Rico, 689 were operating as of Thursday morning, Rosselló said. The distribution of diesel to hospitals, which will use them to operate power generators, increased over the last day, the governor said.
Forty-four of the 47 hospitals that the federal government has assessed in Puerto Rico are operational, FEMA said. Twenty-two other hospitals have yet to be assessed.
On October 2, the island will receive 125,000 barrels of gas. “Given those numbers, we can say that there is gasoline in Puerto Rico,” the governor said.
Truck drivers carrying essentials, starting Thursday, will be exempt from a government-mandated evening curfew that was instituted to prevent looting, he said, and certain gas stations will be designated just for trucks at night.
FEMA: Nearly 1 million meals distributed
Nearly 1 million meals and about 2 million liters of water have been given out at 11 distribution centers in Puerto Rico as of Thursday morning, said John Rabin, acting regional administrator for the FEMA.
FEMA expects another 3 million meals and 2 million liters of water will be given out over the next few days, Rabin said.
More police to Vieques
Extra police and military troops will be sent Thursday to the island of Vieques, seven miles off Puerto Rico, Rosselló said.
Asked Thursday if this was in response to reports of looting on Vieques, Rosselló said he had not heard those reports.
Many Puerto Ricans are having trouble withdrawing from banks because of closures, and because many ATMs are not working or are not being reloaded. At least half of all bank branches on the island were closed Wednesday, said Zoime Alvarez, vice president at the Association of Banks of Puerto Rico.
Banco Popular, a major Puerto Rican bank, told CNNMoney on Wednesday that only 57 of its 169 branches were open for business. And only 150 of its 600 ATMs were operating.
Why? There weren’t enough drivers to move the cash, bank branches were running on generators and can’t get security software back online and some bank employees did not have enough gasoline to drive to work.
$40 million available for road and bridge repairs
The US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration on Thursday announced the immediate availability of $40 million to help restore essential service on roads and bridges damaged by Hurricane Maria.
This money supplements the $2.5 million in ER funds awarded to Puerto Rico for damages related to Hurricane Irma.
The San Juan international airport and eight other airports were open, or open with restrictions, the Defense Department said Thursday.
Puerto Rican students offered in-state tuition in Florida
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who met with Rosselló in San Juan on Thursday, said Florida will offer in-state tuition to Puerto Rican students displaced by hurricanes Maria and Irma.
The Port of San Juan and seven other Puerto Rican ports were open Thursday, some with restrictions, the Defense Department said.