U.S. Army North hosted a press conference Tuesday inside the Fort Sam Houston Quadrangle with the Army North commander leading the Department of Defense response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan spoke via satellite along with Alejandro De La Campa, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Coordinating Officer. They gave updates about the condition of Puerto Rico’s roads, power grid, and food and water distribution networks.
Hurricane Maria swept ashore in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm. Lt. Gen. Buchanan arrived on Sept. 28 to lead the active-duty service members and units tasked with responding to its aftermath. Buchanan oversees 13,485 military personnel that provide support to Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello and FEMA.
FEMA itself has 1,300 employees stationed on the island, aided by another 2,000 federal employees from other agencies.
Buchanan and De La Campa said that all 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico have been reached by military forces and FEMA representatives. But road access is still limited in remote areas, especially in the central and eastern parts of the island.
“We’re still challenged to get out into the countryside away from the headquarters of the municipalities into some of the smaller villages. We’re still clearing routes.” Buchanan said. “Most of the primary and secondary roads around the perimeter of the island are clear. We’ve got a lot of roads cleared on the western side of the island. But we’ve still got quite a bit of work to do.”
Buchanan predicted that the military would need another week to finish clearing roads, but said that total debris removal on the island would take much longer.
“In the meantime, we’re having to depend on helicopters to get in and out,” Buchanan said.
Relief efforts in Puerto Rico have been a coordinated effort between the federal government, the Commonwealth government, and local municipalities. Alejandro De La Campa emphasized that FEMA and the U.S. military are the disposal of municipality mayors.
“They are the ones that know the locations, where families that may not be reachable by ground because of landslides or collapsed bridges,” he said.
FEMA has established checkpoints where the municipalities can pick up food, water and other commodities, according to De La Campa.
“In some cases, whenever the municipality doesn’t have the capability—with trucks or isolated areas—we are providing directly to them,” he said.
Certain areas still haven’t received much support, however. Buchanan said he’d traveled to a remote area of Puerto Rico early Tuesday morning to find that the individuals there needed drinking water.
“They’re really hurting for water, less so for food,” Buchanan said.
Around 50 percent of people in Puerto Rico now have access to clean water through a delivery system facilitated by the military and FEMA. The water shortages are tied to other long-ranging infrastructure problems.
"One of our highest priorities is to get water plants back up and running,” Buchanan explained. “Most of those that are not up and running—it's because they don't have consistent electrical power."
Buchanan said that generator power is being used to return some of Puerto Rico’s water plants to operation. He noted that it will be months before the territory’s electrical grid is restored.
Still, Buchanan said, the military is working to restore communication to the island.
“We’re getting more and more access to communications across the island every day, cell phones and whatnot. Relatively soon, we’re talking a matter of weeks, most people will be back under coverage.”
Buchanan’s efforts in Puerto Rico rooted in San Antonio. According to a press release, nearly 100 military personnel and civilians on Buchanan's staff at Fort Sam Houston deployed with him to Puerto Rico. Another 600 offer support from an operations center on post.