- - Thursday, September 28, 2017


President Trump is now in the process of dealing with the third major domestic national disaster to hit American territory during his young administration. That is as many as George W. Bush and Barack Obama faced in the 16 years of their combined presidencies.

In the Harvey and Irma aftermath, the president got generally high marks for his administration’s handling of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), but he has received criticism for allegedly slower relief to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Some of this criticism implies institutional racism on the part of the administration.

As this is being written, the president is preparing to go to Puerto Rico to assess the damage and determine what more needs to be done. What the public needs to know is that humanitarian assistance and disaster relief on an island is much more difficult than on the mainland U.S.

On the mainland, first responders can generally drive to the area of the disaster. Those of us who have evacuated from Florida in the wake of hurricanes are familiar with the sight of convoys of emergency response vehicles (particularly utility trucks) heading in the other direction. That can’t happen on an island. Such vehicles external to Puerto Rico will have to be flown in probably by military transport; that does not happen overnight.

The same is true of other external first response reaction. It either needs to come by air or sea. The people and equipment must be staged at ports and airports of embarkation. Again, that does not happen instantaneously. Once the responders arrive, they must be housed and preparations made for their survival needs. The logistics challenges are daunting, but once the spigot is turned on the flow will happen quickly.

Americans living on remote outposts such as the Hawaiian Islands and Guam are relatively fortunate when a disaster strikes because there is a large military presence in those places and the military can react quickly to fill the gap until civilian authorities can recover enough to take over the response. Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, it is in a relatively quiet strategic theater without a large, standing military presence. That does not mean that the military cannot help, but it does increase the response time.

The military will be a major factor in the response to Maria. The major problem in these kinds of disasters is not the availability of relief supplies; rather, it is the delivery of those relief supplies to remote areas cut off by flooding and landslides. The use of helicopters and landing craft to bridge that gap until the road network dries out can be a godsend to the victims.

The military can also help prevent the spread of waterborne diseases by providing potable water through portable reverse osmosis water purification units (ROWPUs in military speak) and by the digging of tube wells in areas with high water tables. Tube wells are particularly useful in rural areas as they are sustainable long after the ROWPUs are gone. If the local population can maintain and operate a Home Depot pump, they have a fresh source of community water long after the disaster.

Communications can also be an area where military help can fill the gap. The military can temporarily get cell towers and other communications means up and running until the public utilities and service providers can recover enough to take over.

In the near-term Puerto Rico’s biggest challenge will be getting its electrical power grid up and running, and this is where Mr. Trump has to make a hard decision. It is possible to divert a few nuclear-powered ships to Puerto Rico to provide power sources until the utilities recover. This means taking the ships out of their normal combatant rotations. This is a difficult strategic choice and one that calls for a certain amount of risk.

It is a call only the National Command Authority can make. Puerto Rico is not a Third World country; it is an American commonwealth, and the prospect of three million of our fellow citizens living without electrical power for months is unacceptable. The American military is not designed for HA/DR missions, and it should only be used until civilian mechanisms are fully up and running.

Puerto Ricans are not just fellow Americans. Those from the commonwealth who have fought and died in our nation’s wars have earned our respect. We owe it to them to give a little payback.

• Gary Anderson has been involved in a number of military humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations and has written extensively on the subject.

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