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Hope for Puerto Rico floats aboard the USNS Comfort

By on October 4, 2017

SAN JUAN — During an exclusive interview that took place Tuesday, Lieutenant General Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the three star general commanding some 9,000 troops tasked with the recovery of Puerto Rico, told Caribbean Business there are ripples of good news in the wake of tumult after a Category 4 wind beast named María savaged the island.

The first ray of hope, says Gen. Buchanan, is aboard the USNS Comfort, a Navy ship equipped with 1,000 beds and 4 operating rooms, one intensive care unit and dialysis units that arrived at the port of San Juan on Oct. 2, 2017. The floating hospital will complement MASH units to be set up in locations across the island that will provide medical support for regions that have lost their hospitals.

(Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

“We have four military hospitals coming; one arrived today, the USNS Navy Ship Comfort and that will be off the shore of San Juan for a couple of days, but then we are going to move it to wherever we need to move it,” said Gen. Buchanan. “Then we have two Army hospitals one going into Humacao, one going into Caguas and then, an Air Force hospital going into Aguadilla.

The Comfort’s arrival comes not a moment too soon as Puerto Rico’s hospital system was significantly compromised by a 100 percent power outage in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The U.S. Army stated last week that its first order of priority was to bring hospitals back online and to launch search and rescue missions in regions of the island where people were left isolated by mudslides and overflowing rivers that destroyed bridges and roads.  At this writing, 18 of Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals still lack power. The plan is to fill the needs in regions where the populations have essentially lost their hospitals and are in serious need of medical attention or require tertiary care.

Also lurking with the passing of each minute is the possibility that disease will spread. “Anytime you have a disaster like this, disease is a concern. Here’s something that is a concern for us and we are working with the Centers for Disease Control on this,” Buchanan explained. “Mosquitos are going to come back because of all of the standing water. So we work with the CDC to control the mosquito population so that mosquito- born diseases are less of a concern. And FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Administration] and the CDC are in charge of this. We are helping them.”

Buchanan’s brigades spearheading the recovery effort in Texas after Harvey sent modified C-130s—a  Modular Airborne Spraying System (MASS)–to actually spray the region for vector control of mosquitos.

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Buchanan explained that the more than 9,000 Title 10 military troops he commands focused first on search and rescue missions and then moved on to assisting in the restoration of power at hospitals that were knocked off the grid. Efforts by the Northern Command forces he oversees include clearing roads, transporting generators and providing support for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in restoring Puerto Rico’s power grid.

The hospital ship’s arrival two weeks after María’s passing brought into scrutiny the pace of the recovery operation. A story in the New York Times explained how Senior officials at the U.S. Pentagon initially debated whether or not to send the USNS Comfort and “decided instead to fill requests from the Puerto Rico government to send a couple of 50-bed units that could be set up on shore.” It took visits from Senior military officials to determine that the Comfort was needed—it arrived in the waters to the North of San Juan two weeks after the storm hit the island with its full fury.

Although Buchanan is credited for his work in the recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas with Monsoon rains and Hurricane Irma swept across Florida with Category 4 winds, some advisers in the Trump administration are saying that Puerto Rico needs a commander such as Buchanan to have complete command and control of all military and civilian aspects of the operation.

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