A number of federal and state agencies rushed emergency teams and supplies into Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricane Maria leveling those areas soon after Irma had struck, amid warnings that the initial response was not strong enough to avert a humanitarian crisis.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, Coast Guard, various state National Guard units, the Department of Defense and various Department of Transportation agencies mobilized resources.
However, Puerto Rico's governor and other officials repeated their calls on national news outlets for the nation to send much more help, while containers full of supplies stacked up at Puerto Rico ports because of damaged roads and lack of available drivers to help distribute them.
Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. Afterward the U.S. territory with a population of 3.4 million was not only left without an operating electrical system, but with shuttered airports and seaports plus numerous damaged building and roads. Radar, and air and water navigational aids were reportedly destroyed as well.
Soon, hospitals using diesel-powered generators to run critical systems reportedly ran out of fuel. Most gasoline stations were closed or soon out of fuel. People could not draw cash from most banking machines for lack of power and those still operating limited cash withdrawals.
News reports also showed large crowds at Puerto Rico airports desperate to get tickets for seats on the few passenger planes flying out, as air service was disrupted for days partly for lack of air traffic control.
And on Sept. 27 CNN reported from the capital at San Juan that
containers of food, water and other supplies were stranded at the port, while "a shortage of truckers and the island's devastated infrastructure are making it tough to move aid to where it's needed most."
As the crisis continued for more than a week, lawmakers from both parties called on the Trump administration to sharply increase its assistance.
Also for days the Trump administration rejected calls to waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico as it had quickly done for Texas and Florida after hurricanes disrupted shipping to their ports. That law requires vessels carrying cargo between U.S. ports to be U.S.-flagged and crewed, rules that critics say drives up customer costs and limits shipping options in order to maintain a U.S. merchant marine.
But the Department of Homeland Security
on Sept. 28 issued a 10-day Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico, after days of calls by members of Congress and territorial officials to do so.
Also on Sept. 28, the Federal Highway Administration said it was releasing to Puerto Rico $40 million in emergency relief account funds to help make repairs to roads and bridges, on top of $2.5 million it made available earlier following Irma.
"Puerto Rico was hit hard by Hurricane Maria, so I have directed the department to release $40 million in emergency funding to
begin restoring and repairing the roads and bridges across the island," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. "It is critical to get the island's infrastructure in working condition as soon as possible so relief supplies and other assistance can be delivered to the people of Puerto Rico."
The announcement said Maria "caused widespread damage to roads and bridges across the island. In addition to restoring essential traffic, emergency work will include repairs to bridges, guardrails, traffic signal systems and address a variety of damages related to mudslides and flooding."
Also that day, FEMA said there were already
thousands of federal workers including more than 600 FEMA employees working in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to aid residents and try to restore infrastructure.
FEMA said it and other federal partners had distributed millions of meals and liters of water.
It also said the Federal Aviation Administration had supported restoration of aviation services to seven of eight commercial airports in Puerto Rico, allowing more commercial passenger flights per day for people trying to leave for the U.S. mainland.
The Coast Guard had initially responded in search and rescue missions, and deployed ships, airplanes and helicopters to help aid the region.
By Sept. 25 it reported that 13 cutters and 10 aircraft were helping the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. "Crews continue working to reopen affected ports and waterways to help the flow of humanitarian aid and resume maritime commerce," it said that day. "Reopening affected ports enables critical fuel supplies and commodities to flow into the port and be distributed throughout the affected regions."
Among other steps, Chao on Sept. 26 said the
Maritime Administration was providing four ships to support recovery efforts. Two of them were already docked or en route to the Caribbean on missions from FEMA, she said.
For one ship, the TS Kennedy, officials ordered a mission change to take it from Texas to the Virgin Islands to support hurricane recovery efforts there and in Puerto Rico.
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Heriberto Hernandez, a fast response cutter homeported in San Juan, Puerto Rico, delivers food near the port of Ponce on Sept. 27. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael De Nyse)
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