Puerto Rico’s path toward recovery a complicated picture
SAN JUAN – On the last stretch toward 50 days after the impact of Hurricane María and after a visit by President Donald Trump, complaints of delays in the delivery of aid and corruption scandals, Puerto Rico begins to make the transition from the initial emergency response stage to its stabilization, said Brig. Gen. José Reyes, Puerto Rico National Guard assistant adjutant general and dual status commander.
However, to be able to affirm that the island is in its stabilization phase and that it is ready for the third and final stage, recovery, two main issues must be resolved: electric power and the reactivation of the economy.
“We are still in the process of stabilizing the electric power and that will take a while, because it is a combined stabilization between the electricity generated and that of the generators, because we have two mega generators, of 30,000 megawatts [MW] in Palo Seco [power complex], but that run on diesel. IN other words, that is generating power temporarily as we enter the more permanent reconstruction phase,” he said.
Regarding the second factor, reactivating the economy, Reyes warned that it is vital that businesses reopen their doors. While supermarkets begin to reestablish their inventories and connecting to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority so their refrigerators operate normally, a break-even point will be reached in which the authorities will begin to decrease the distribution of provisions to allow supermarkets to meet the needs of the population and “help the economy move, for people to return to their jobs, distributors and vendors.”
To restore the economy, electric power [from the grid] or from generators is crucial,” he stressed, while offering details about the changes in logistics that occurred from the initial response to the current period. He recalled, among other matters, that during the first days after the hurricane, distribution was carried at centers where the municipalities looked for what they needed. Later, that system changed and more than a thousand soldiers joined the 78 municipalities to contribute to the mayors’ distribution plan.
“That entails logistics because, from 10 distribution centers, we are [now] talking about 78 municipalities; this entails more trucks, more drivers, etc.” he said.
Nine municipalities with populations greater than 150,000 were identified and Utuado, which due to its geographic and topographical extension has its own challenges. For two weeks now, those towns have been getting food distributed from the ports; two containers of water and one of food daily.
Reyes could not say how long it will take to reach the final stage of recovery. “I cannot set a date because it’s not a typical recovery. With food, we will maintain direct communication with the mayors to see how each municipality is moving, how each supermarket is recovering, because the economy must be reactivated,” he reiterated.
In addition, it is necessary to continue with debris removal and reestablish transportation routes. “We are going to be doing debris and garbage claenup for a while, yes, but we must try to return, within the crisis, to as normal as possible.” As for the island’s bridges, 67 require total or partial construction. There are six for which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has already hired contractors; there are blueprints for 30 bridges and plans being worked on for the rest of them.
In the general’s comprehensive agenda, repairing roads and hospitals also has a high priority. He said there already are 66 hospitals operational, of which 43 are connected to Prepa’s grid.
By operational, he meant hospitals that have surgery rooms ready and can address the immediate needs of patients and perform operations as well as offer postoperative care, but that could be running on a generator. If it loses its generator, it ceases to be operational. “This area is beginning to stabilize, and eventually these military medical facilities will not be needed because they are to address contingencies. But we want to return to hospitals, so that they also contribute to the economy,” he said.
“It’s difficult to say if it has been a slow process, given the magnitude of the event,” he added, although he identified two factors that, in his opinion, have influenced the process, “which weren’t the same factors that influenced Harvey in Texas and in Irma in Florida.”
The first is the fragility of the island’s infrastructure. “Puerto Rico’s electric power infrastructure was built in the ’40s, ’50s; a type of structure and distribution of electrical energy that experts are reevaluating to see if when we get to the reconstruction stage we should modify it to a more modern system that is stronger, because more category 3, 4, 5 hurricanes will come here.” For this reason the Corps of Engineers and Prepa are determining what the system should be once the island goes on to the reconstruction stage.
“We are in the process of stabilizing that temporary electric power while they decide and evaluate the next long-term step;whether what exists is going to be reestablished or if something new, different will be built.”
The next element he alluded to was the economy, which was highly affected, he said. “When I put together those factors and Puerto Rico receives the impact of two Category 5 hurricanes in less than two weeks, it’s difficult to peg a recovery-time period,” he said.
The National Guard’s withdrawal will not take place yet. That is determined by the governor and President Trump, “but more than anything the governor, because he was the one who called the National Guard to state active duty.”
Typically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimburses military personnel salaries up to 100% during the first 30 days, but given the gravity of the island’s situation, the period was extended for 180 days, after which the local government is responsible for 25%, then 50%, then 75% until it is completely responsible for their salaries.
“After that, we have to make some decisions about how the governor will reduce our presence. That will be around the end of March,” he said. However, before that, Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the commander of ground forces on the island, will have already returned to San Antonio, Texas.
Change of command
Reyes avoided saying when Buchanan would leave Puerto Rico, but explained that a transition from the forces Buchanan leads operationally to those Reyes directs tactically would take place first. It’s like emptying one glass and filling the other.
To explain the transition process, he listed the National Guard’s three missions: federal, or Title 10, when going to war; Title 32, which has two components, when within the state or territory and on state active duty; and the third, which is a community mission.
The difference between these is whose checkbook is used. The first is paid by the federal government; the second, if Title 32, is also paid federally, but if it is state active duty, it falls on the government of Puerto Rico. The units under Title 32, fall under the direct command of Reyes while Title 10 forces under Buchanan.
As dual status commander, Reyes is responsible for integrating and synchronizing both forces. Activated by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló due to the emergency caused by the major hurricane the National Guard is under state active duty.
“There are some elements Buchanan has under Title 10, where he begins to place under my orders, which is known as tactical command; Buchanan maintains operational command [responsible for paying and feeding the troops], but who uses them tactically and places them as needed, is the dual status commander,” Reyes explained.
However, in an interview with Caribbean Business three weeks ago, Buchanan explained that Reyes works for him in his command of the National Guard. In other words, troops do not work directly for Buchanan but through Reyes, who in turn has access to Title 10 reservists who can execute the tactical orders he gives.
That transition of units from one general to the other is underway. “There are units that remain under the Buchanan’s command; I already picked up some in engineering and logistics.” Also, there are mortuary affairs specialists working with the Puerto Rico Institute of Forensic Sciences and some in logistics in Ceiba and Aguadilla who will soon be put under Reyes’s command. Reyes has also been replacing Buchanan’s air support with National Guard helicopters from Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina, among other states.
Meanwhile, Buchanan oversees the hospitals in Aguadilla, Humacao, Ponce and the USNS Comfort. Those military hospitals will remain until local ones run normally. Ryder Hospital in Humacao is expected to be ready in two weeks; if so, the military hospital in that town won’t be needed.
In the case of the USNS Comfort, its departure will depend on an evaluation carried out by the U.S. and Puerto Rico health departments as well as FEMA. That is expected to happen some time in December. “The Comfort may be the last one to leave,” Reyes said.
“So it depends on me continuing to increase my assets and he lowers his. Once that process concludes, is when Buchanan returns to San Antonio to attend any other emergency that may arise.” Title 10 and Title 32 forces will then be under the command of the dual status commander, with a date yet to be determined for that to happen.
When Buchanan leaves Puerto Rico, Reyes will continue to perform his current duties until the governor and the president decide they do not need more military forces working on the contingency. “At a given moment they will decide to ramp down operations, if the economy, electricity, water have stabilized and military forces aren’t needed, then I’ll return to the Puerto Rico National Guard.”