Friday, December 15, 2017

The Latest: Pentagon boosts troop numbers in Puerto Rico

By on September 26, 2017

In this photo taken Aug 1, 2017, President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington.  (Alex Brandon, File/AP)

The Latest on Hurricane Maria (all times local):

7 p.m.

The Pentagon is greatly increasing the active-duty military forces being sent in to help relief efforts in Puerto Rico, growing from about 2,500 now to possibly double that number in the next several days.

John Cornelio, spokesman at U.S. Northern Command, says an Army brigadier general will take over the military response. It will include additional medical facilities, satellite communications equipment and a civil affairs unit from Fort Bragg, N.C., that will be used to help communicate with the residents on the island. The unit will use loudspeakers, trucks, leaflets and text messaging to get needed information to the public.

The hospital ship USNS Comfort is expected to leave Baltimore by Saturday, and it will take three to five days to reach Puerto Rico.

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6:40 p.m.

The federal government will pick up 100 percent of the costs for debris removal and other emergency protective measures in the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

The White House made the announcement Tuesday, saying it will pick up all the costs for six months after the hurricane’s impact.

U.S. states and territories typically cover 25 percent of the costs, with the federal government paying the remaining 75 percent.

Previously, Trump had pledged to cover 90 percent of costs for debris removal in the Virgin Islands, and 100 percent of protective measures for 30 days, then 90 percent after that.

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5:50 p.m.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida says “it will take a much more aggressive federal reaction” to help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico because its government has been so strained by two storms and a fiscal crisis.

Rubio has met with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House and with fellow senators after visiting the island Monday. He says he’s encouraged by their desire to help.

Still, Rubio says he fears that conditions on the island could grow desperate in the coming days.

He says barges bringing in supplies and equipment take days to arrive, and once they get to the island, it’s difficult to distribute the items.

Rubio says “the situation grows graver” every day for parts of the island without power.

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4:30 p.m.

The Trump administration is sending additional resources to Puerto Rico to step up the federal response to Hurricane Maria, including a flotilla of ships and thousands more military personnel.

Speaking Tuesday outside the White House, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long says the devastation wrought by the storm presents unique logistical challenges for the federal response. He says demolished airports and seaports have made it difficult to get aid and personnel to the stricken island.

Long says 16 Navy and Coast Guard ships are now in the waters around Puerto Rico, with another 10 ships on the way. They include the USS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship. Planes and ships are also bringing in a military force to help distribute aid.

3:40 p.m.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been able to reach most of her family in Puerto Rico, after several days of trying.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg says Sotomayor’s relatives are doing OK as the U.S. territory struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.

Sotomayor shared her concerns last week because she couldn’t contact about half her relatives after Maria walloped the island.

Sotomayor’s parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico before she was born.

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2:40 p.m.

The federal government will pick up 100 percent of the costs of for debris removal and other emergency assistance provided to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

President Donald Trump made the change Tuesday as part of an amendment to his earlier disaster declaration authorizing federal aid in response to the Category 4 storm. U.S. states and territories typically cover 25 percent of the costs, with the federal government paying the remaining 75 percent.

Puerto Rican officials and sympathetic members of Congress had called on Trump to relieve the island’s cash-strapped government of the cost-sharing requirement.

Trump’s declaration covers costs for removing downed trees, utility poles and other debris, as well as spending for emergency protective measures taken to save lives, protect public health and ensure public safety.

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2:30 p.m.

President Donald Trump says he was not preoccupied with his fight with the NFL over the weekend at the expense of storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Trump was asked Tuesday about criticism that he was paying too much attention to the fight over football players kneeling during the national anthem. He says he has “plenty of time” on his hands, adding that all he does is work. Speaking out against the protests, he said, amounts to “respect for our country” and is part of his job.

Trump has come under criticism that his administration responded too slowly to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria knocked out power to virtually the entire island. He said he is visiting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday.

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2:10 p.m.

President Donald Trump is sending “America’s hearts and prayers” to people in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and says he’ll visit both places next week.

Trump said Tuesday that a “massive” effort to help people recover from Hurricane Maria is underway. He added that includes the military, though he did not give specifics.

Trump spoke in the White House Rose Garden after he received criticism from some U.S. lawmakers that the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria has fallen short of its efforts in Texas and Florida after storms there.

Maria roared ashore Sept. 20 and knocked out nearly all power in Puerto Rico, leaving its 3.4 million residents short of food, water and supplies.

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1:25 p.m.

It’s getting easier to leave Puerto Rico, where more than 3.4 million U.S. citizens still lack adequate food, water and fuel five days after Maria pounded the island as a Category 4 hurricane.

The Federal Aviation Administration says the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan is handling nearly 100 arrivals and departures daily, including military and relief operations as well as more than a dozen commercial passenger flights per day.

The agency is taking reservations for arrival and departure slots to manage space at the airport and safely separate aircraft in the air.

Maria destroyed or disabled a number of essential radar, navigation and communication systems, so the FAA has been bringing in replacements by air and sea, and technicians are working now to get them working.

The FAA says a long-range radar in the Turks and Caicos returned to service on Monday, giving air traffic controllers a much better picture of planes and helicopters in the region. Meanwhile, technicians are using chain saws to cut a path through a rain forest to reach a mountaintop where a second long-range radar site remains offline.

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12:50 p.m.

A group of 10 Democratic senators has requested that Congress immediately take up legislation to help the residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The lawmakers say a supplemental spending bill is needed right away because of the devastation brought by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

They say the two U.S. territories need financial help to rebuild homes, provide temporary housing and repair vital infrastructure. Without it, they say the challenging road to recovery will only be prolonged.

The lawmakers are making the request as part of a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

They say, “as members of Congress, we have an obligation to ensure all citizens of the United States affected by natural disasters have sufficient resources to recover.”

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12:45 p.m.

The Federal Highway Administration is helping Puerto Rico with damage assessments so that emergency relief money can help restore roads throughout the island.

The TS Kennedy, a former commercial freighter used by the Maritime Administration for training, is currently sailing from Texas to the Virgin Islands to support hurricane recovery efforts in the U.S. Virgin Island and Puerto Rico.

The Federal Transit Administration is working with FEMA on improving ferry service between Puerto Rico islands. As of Monday, limited ferry service was available during daylight hours to transport emergency supplies to Vieques and Culebra.

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11:55 a.m.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello says he’s spoken “as recently as last night” to President Donald Trump about the crisis Hurricane Maria caused on the island. He says he’s “confident the president understands the magnitude of the situation.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday at a Puma gas facility in San Juan, Rossello

said “the president has offered a waiver on matching funds” for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which means the cash-strapped island won’t have to contribute to the initial costs of this federal help.

Rossello said he’d be speaking with Trump later today to discuss “a long-term recovery package for Puerto Rico to be presented to Congress,” apparently next week.

He also said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has offered to send a National Guard unit to aid in security

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11:40 a.m.

Congressional Democrats say President Donald Trump is not acknowledging the gravity of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-NY, says she is concerned that Trump’s continued tweets about NFL players show he doesn’t grasp the severity of the crisis.

She warned Trump that, “If you don’t take this crisis seriously this is going to be your Katrina,” referring to criticism of President George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Velazquez also said she was “offended and insulted” by Trump’s tweet that Puerto Rico’s public debt contributed to the crisis.

Rep. Joe Crowley, D-NY, called it “absolutely ridiculous” for Trump to mention debt “when people are suffering and dying. Here’s a president who’s used bankruptcy throughout his entire career.”

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10:58 a.m.

President Donald Trump says he’ll visit hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico next Tuesday.

Trump announced the visit after the administration came under criticism for its response to the damage on the island that is home to more than 3 million U.S. citizens. The island has been coping with shortages of food, drinking water, electricity and various forms of communication after Hurricane Maria struck earlier this month.

Trump said Tuesday is the earliest he can visit without disrupting recovery operations.

He says he may also visit the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Trump says Puerto Rico is important to him. He says Puerto Ricans are “great people and we need to help them.”

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10:25 a.m.

The top Republican leaders in Congress are promising help for devastated Puerto Rico, with Speaker Paul Ryan calling it a “humanitarian crisis.”

Both Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that they are working with the Trump administration and awaiting word on what resources and disaster relief will be needed.

Hurricane Maria has left millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico without food, water and housing. Ryan told reporters: “They need our help and they are going to get our help.”

Ryan said the $15 billion Congress passed early this month for hurricanes Harvey and Irma also applied to Puerto Rico.

McConnell said recovery efforts will not be easy.

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8:50 a.m.

President Donald Trump is thanking the major of San Juan for what he says are her “kind words” on the U.S. federal response to helping storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. But it wasn’t immediately clear what Trump was talking about.

Trump tweeted Tuesday: “Thank you to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, for your kind words on FEMA etc. We are working hard. Much food and water there/on way.”

It was Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló who had conducted a news conference Monday alongside FEMA where Rossello urgently called for more emergency assistance but also expressed gratitude for the help so far.

It was Cruz who criticized Trump for tweeting about Puerto Rico’s financial struggles during the humanitarian crisis, saying “you don’t put debt above people.”

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5 a.m.

The U.S. has ramped up its response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, even as President Donald Trump brought up the island’s struggles before Hurricane Maria struck. He tweeted about “billions of dollars” in debt to “Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”

The Trump administration has tried to blunt criticism that its response to Hurricane Maria has fallen short of its efforts in Texas and Florida after the recent hurricanes there.

Five days after the Category 4 storm slammed into Puerto Rico, many of the more than 3.4 million U.S. citizens in the territory were still without adequate food, water and fuel. Officials said electrical power may not be fully restored for more than a month.

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