The Trump administration said it was sending a flotilla of ships and thousands more military personnel to Puerto Rico to address the growing humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Maria.
The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, said Tuesday the devastation wrought by the Category 4 storm presented logistical challenges, with badly damaged airports and seaports making it difficult to get aid and personnel to the stricken island.
Long said 16 Navy and Coast Guard ships were in the waters around Puerto Rico, with 10 more ships on the way. They include the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship. Planes and ships were also bringing in a military force numbering in the thousands to help distribute aid. Military aircraft were dropping food and water to areas of the island still isolated and unable to receive help by road, he said.
"We're dramatically increasing the federal footprint that's there," Long said, speaking outside the White House.
The shift, six days after the storm made landfall, came amid a growing chorus of criticism that the federal response so far had been insufficient and fallen far short of the responses to hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
The Pentagon said the number of active duty military personnel would grow from about 2,500 to possibly double that number in the next several days.
An Army brigadier general will take over command of the military response, which will include additional medical facilities and satellite communications equipment, said John Cornelio, spokesman at U.S. Northern Command. The USNS Comfort is expected to leave Baltimore by Saturday and arrive in Puerto Rico three to five days later.
The military response also will include a civil affairs unit from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that will be used to help communicate with the residents on the island, Cornelio said. The unit will use loudspeakers, trucks, leaflets and text messaging to get needed information to the public.
As of Tuesday morning, 90 percent of cell sites were out of service, down slightly from 91.2 percent a day earlier, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Chris Anderson, chief of the FCC's operations and emergency management division, said the commission planned to send four personnel to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands this week, possibly as soon as Wednesday, to help coordinate communications’ response needs. He said the FCC waited until a week after the storm made landfall to dispatch the workers to make sure they had lodging and other necessary support. The commission also sent four personnel to Texas and Florida in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
During the same hearing on Tuesday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said he had spoken to CEOs or representatives of the largest national cell carriers serving Puerto Rico and two island-based carriers and helped ensure generators and other equipment was delivered to them. Pai also emphasized with Long and FEMA's staff the importance of making a priority of delivering of fuel, generators and other equipment to communication providers, he said. FCC staff has been directed to reach out to cell tower owners American, Crown Castle and SBA.
Additional national guard forces are also being sent in to provide more security on the island. Those forces will be under the command of the governor, and could be used around fuel access points where there have been some security problems.
Long said the federal government has provided 4 million ready-to-eat meals and 6 million liters of water. That would account for less than a day's supply for each of the island's 3.4 million U.S. citizens.
Large sections of the territory remained without adequate food, water and fuel Tuesday. Flights off the island were infrequent, communications were spotty and roads were clogged with debris. Officials said electrical power may not be fully restored for more than a month.
Long stressed that coordinating the response in Puerto Rico offered greater challenges than FEMA faced after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Hurricane Irma hit Florida.
"It's an island. We don't just drive trucks and resources onto an island," Long said, stressing that all supplies had to cross hundreds of miles of water to get to the U.S. territory. He said relief efforts were initially hampered by damage to air traffic control systems at the airport in San Juan, limiting the flow of government and commercial flights. Federal personnel were now working to repair two other airfields, he said, to increase the capacity to bring in supplies by air.
He also suggested Puerto Rico was less able to withstand and recover from the storm than the U.S. states on the mainland.
"The infrastructure is weak, and there were no building codes, so there is a lot of devastation," Long said. "Unfortunately, because of the severity of the hit, there is diminished capacity of local governments and state government to respond similar to what we saw with Texas and Florida."
Long also warned people not involved with the relief effort to stay away.
"If you're going to Puerto Rico right now, it should be for only a life-sustaining, life-support mission," he said. "Because everybody that's trying to get in that's not supporting that is getting in the way."
The acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke, said Wednesday that search and rescue efforts were complete and the focus is now on distributing supplies of food, water and gasoline, NBC News reported.
The Defense Logistics Agency has been asked to help national guard troops on the ground there and AT&T is working on restoring cell service.
The electrical grid is more of a challenge, Duke said, adding that it's "virtually gone."