Trump Advisers Pushing for National Incident Commander
When U.S. President Donald J. Trump assessed the damage inflicted on Puerto Rico by the wind beast named Maria in a media tour of the island, some members of his administration were hopeful it would lead to concrete actions facilitating a more swift response and coordination.
Trump’s whirlwind tour kicked off with a first meeting with federal and local officials, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a visit to Cavalry Church followed by a walk through Guaynabo. The president also visited an amphibious assault ship, the USS Kearsarge, which was staging operations in the region.
Critics suggested that was for show; the question remains will Trump realize the full implications—the rise in preventable deaths tracing to a crippled hospital system and the mass exodus of people who will head for the States?
There are advisers with ties to the Trump administration who are hoping that devastation across the island will be enough to prompt the Commander in Chief to name a National Incident Commander to oversee Puerto Rico’s recovery. It does not seem likely the president will be inspired to act, given that he visited communities in Guaynabo, largely restored and not as much the postcards of chaos you might find in Humacao, where homes sat at the edge of precipices that sled into the ocean; Yauco where an entire community is apparently buried under ground and the body count is not yet known for certain; and other rural neighborhoods that have been cut off because bridges washed away.
“This is the worse I have seen,” said the general who was the Joint Force Land Component Commander in the recovery response after Harvey drenched Texas and in the recovery efforts after Irma swept through Florida. “This surpasses all of it. The really bad thing in Florida was the flood. Here the devastation far surpasses it just because of the tremendous effect of the Cat 5 winds. It leveled the whole island. Trees are down everywhere and powerlines are down everywhere—roofs off houses.”
Command and Control
That level of devastation demands swift response and coordination across an army of people working together with Swiss clock precision—a person with command and control of military, civilian and federal agencies. At this writing, Lieutenant General Jeffrey S. Buchanan oversees some 9,000 federal troops in Puerto Rico and works in conjunction with the National Guard, but he does not have command of the federal agencies and civilians.
“So, we have all of the military and we are in direct support of FEMA. And, of course, together with FEMA we support the governor—the person in charge of the response is the governor. So, it is FEMA and the military working together to support Gov. Rosselló,” Buchanan explained. “Now, I have a member of the Puerto Rico National Guard, Brigadier General José Reyes—he works for me and he commands all of the guard guys, so the guard guys don’t work for me directly, they work through him to the governor, but we also have some Title 10 guys, Army reservists who work for him but come through me.”
Sixteen days after Maria’s crossing, there is a growing divide among members of the Trump administration about the celerity with which the administration had to act; now that some members of the U.S. Congress and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke have flown over a wreckage-strewn Puerto Rico, the dire need for swift action is forcing some members of the U.S. Congress to plead for a more robust response. That includes the call for the president to name one person with complete command and control of the entire operation.
Last week, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R, N.Y.-1) released a statement calling for the appointment of a National Incident Commander after the destruction to the island caused by Hurricane Maria that read: “There is horrible devastation in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricanes Maria and Irma. Just like after Hurricane Katrina and the BP spill, we need to immediately appoint a National Incident Commander to marshal all federal resources on the island, civilian and military. This is also essential so that there is one chain of command and aid doesn’t get held up waiting for various agency approvals. This is life or death, so one chain of command led by an experienced Admiral or General is critical.”
Zeldin’s case is bolstered by the critique made by Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré, the National Incident Commander credited with turning around the recovery effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, who believes the response in the aftermath of Maria “requires the expeditionary logistics of the Department of Defense and more than 20,000 troops.”
Buchanan disagrees. “I don’t want to talk about Gen. Honoré; I can tell you things are working great here; we have a great system right now,” Buchanan said with a stern tone coloring the sound of his voice. “I don’t have a problem getting whatever I need from both FEMA and the governor. And, yes, I’m not in command of the guard forces, but I am in command of their commander. Not the Adjutant General, but the dual commander status of General Reyes; he and I do much together and it is seamless.”
The two Generals traveled together to Utuado and then to Ponce to await the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship that was used during recovery efforts in the lesser Antilles after Hurricane Irma flattened St. Martin and Barbuda. “The ship will have both Blackhawk helicopters and Supersea Stallions (MH-53s). Then we have the Ospreys on shore right now; we have eight Ospreys that are coming in to the northwest to Aguadilla,” Buchanan explained. “The USS Wasp will be coming to Puerto Rico, so we will move it wherever our needs are greatest for aviation.”
The military tandem is spearheading efforts to help clear roads and get people who are either injured or sick to Combat Support Hospitals (CASH units) for treatment or to the USS Comfort if they require special care. “Four or five days ago, we had to clear the routes around the perimeter of the island; now we are starting to get North-South routes and East-West routes clear across the middle of the island,” Buchanan said. “That is going to be critical to help some of these communities that have been isolated—Utuado, Jayuya. We have been delivering food, fuel and water.”
At this writing, there are nearly 11,000 federal military assets and National Guard troops participating in the recovery operation who will operate on three fronts—logistics, medical and aviation. Buchanan closed with this: “Everywhere I go, I see people helping themselves—number one. And more importantly, I see people helping their neighbors—that is what we are going to need to get back on our feet.”