(CNSNews.com) - The White House on Thursday detailed the federal relief efforts currently underway in Puerto Rico, noting that 10,000 federal relief workers are on the island along with 7,200 U.S. troops.
“The full weight of the United States government is engaged to make sure that food, water, healthcare, and other life-saving resources are making it to the people in need,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
“At the request of the governor, who is doing a terrific job, the president waived the Jones Act. This will ensure that ample resources are making it to the island, but we will continue to focus on the challenge of distributing those resources. The island setting presents logistical hurdles that do not exist on the mainland, where trucks from around the country can converge on disaster areas,” she said.
Furthermore, 44 of the island’s 69 hospitals are now fully functional.
“The Army Corps of Engineers is spearheading a massive mobilization to restore power, and this began with providing the diesel fuel necessary for sustainable emergency power generation. They are also working to restore long-term power generation and distribution around the island,” Sanders said.
“There’s a long way to go, but we will not rest until everyone is safe and secure. Our message to the incredible people of Puerto Rico is this: the president is behind you. We all are - the entire country. Your unbreakable spirit is an inspiration to us all. We are praying for you. We are working for you, and we will not let you down,” she said.
White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said the “distribution of commodities” is “the biggest challenge right now, but the restoration of power is also a big challenge.” That’s because electric power is supplying the hospitals caring for the wounded.
“So there’s kind of a dual priority going on in terms of power restoration - emergency power - and then blocking, clearing, pushing out of the way all of the roads to open them up so we can get commodities delivered,” he said.
“There’s still a shortfall there though, and that is drivers for all those trucks, so we are pushing personnel in to augment state and local authorities to continue to push those commodities. What you saw today though I think was some reporting and some loop footage of trucks sitting on ports in docks. We’re moving those trucks quickly. We’re also prioritizing what needs to come off first,” Bossert said.
When asked whether airdrops would circumvent having to rebuild infrastructure, Bossert said, “At this point, if airdrops are under consideration, I’m not aware of it, but I would promote it if it’s a faster way to get food and water to people who are in need.
“We now have a one-star general, General Kim in place, who’s in charge of all ground force operations to make sure there’s one person in charge of marshaling all those efforts, and if he recommends air drop, then I think we air drop,” Bossert added.
Then there are reports that people are dying while waiting for federal aid. One reporter asked Bossert about what he heard from a volunteer who is on the island and reported “apocalyptic conditions” possible in the next 2 to 3 days. In some cases, he said people are burying their family members in their front yard.
“I gotta text here from a volunteer who has boots on the ground, and he says that they need helicopters to evacuate people from remote areas of the island, and he says there are people burying their family members in front yards. Communication is badly needed, and they look at apocalyptic conditions between 48 and 72 hours. There’s a little bit of disconnect from what I’m hearing here and what they’re telling me there. Can you explain the difference?” a reporter asked.
“There’s no disconnect,” Bossert said. “If that’s accurate, then it needs to be addressed and remediated immediately, so what I want to do here is be careful not to micromanage it from here. That’s the mistake you’ve seen in the past.
“I believe I’m confident anyway that we’ve got enough resources marshalled and deployed forward to make those decisions under the right command and leadership structure. What we’ve done, and as I’ve explained in the past is we’ve had to augment and change our business model in the field. We did that last Thursday in earnest,” Bossert said.
“First, people seeing 24 and 48 hour horizon problems, where they’re saying, I don’t see enough food and water coming, it’s my sincere belief that that food and water’s going to get to them before that deadline arises and that we’re going to save their lives. I have no doubt in it. We’ve got over 10,000 people there now,” he said, adding that more aid is on its way, including aerial support.
“I’m going to read the numbers here for you. There’s 12 Coast Guard cutters, three United States Navy ships, one DOT maritime administration vessel, six commercial ships with supplies in route. This was as of 5 am, so there’s more since. Seven additional ships to house responders, and we’ve got commodities distribution now exceeding millions, so 1.3 million meals, 2.7 million liters - that type of thing - of water, so that’s moving in today, and you’re seeing the distribution problem unclogged,” Bossert explained.
"So if there’s somebody burying somebody in their front yard, that’s an absolutely terrible story. What I don’t want to do though is project it as the norm, and I think there’s a careful distinction here,” Bossert said.
When asked what is the norm, Bossert said, “Right now we’ve seen 16 fatalities confirmed from the state authorities. No fatality is acceptable. If that number increases, significantly, that will be a devastating blow. We are doing everything we can to prevent that. Loss of life from the storm is one thing. Loss of life that’s preventable is another, and that’s why we’re trying to marshal our resources.”