By HELENE COOPER, JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and JACK HEALY
WASHINGTON – The Trump administration moved Thursday to step up its assistance to Puerto Rico more than a week after Hurricane Maria, appointing a three-star general to coordinate with agencies and vowing to give the island all it needed as aides tried to stave off comparisons to the response to Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago.
But on Puerto Rico, the desperation and frustration only grew. Shelters ran out of supplies, and residents lined up all night to purchase ice and fuel, only to walk away with a bag of cold water or just a few gallons of gas. Others complained of an absence of basics like tarps for roofs and the continuing lack of running water.
Officials still struggled to get supplies out of port to be distributed across an island of 3.4 million people where there is no electricity and scant phone service. Hospitals ran low on diesel for generators.
The island has become a landscape of long lines and growing impatience with the pace of the response to what Puerto Rico’s governor called the “greatest catastrophe” in its modern history.
Lawmakers and local officials alike called on President Donald Trump to place the military in charge and to send more troops, aircraft and ships.
“With all the needs there are, we go out every day to the streets and are face to face with the people – you don’t see a single government agency,” said Elizabeth Perez, a police officer in Ponce, Puerto Rico, who recently visited poor neighborhoods in her district and found people living in dire conditions.
The White House continued to insist that the administration was doing all it could. A century-old shipping law was temporarily waived after officials in Puerto Rico said it was hindering disaster relief efforts. About 7,200 troops are on the island, as are about 2,800 federal relief workers, the White House said. And the Pentagon announced that a new, higher-ranking military commander,
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan of the Army, would work with federal aid agencies on the response.
“We will not let you down,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told Puerto Ricans.
“FEMA & First Responders are doing a GREAT job in Puerto Rico. Massive food & water delivered,” the president tweeted.
But the call for more help grew increasingly urgent. “There is a crisis in Puerto Rico,” tweeted Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. “Fuel, water & medicine sitting at the docks. Need immediate response by US military. Where is the cavalry?”
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is being tried on federal bribery charges, criticized the response after court proceedings. Speaking at Newark Liberty International Airport, where he planned to board a flight to Florida and then one to Puerto Rico, Menendez called on the president to issue a disaster declaration for the entire island – which, he said, “astonishingly, has yet to happen.”
Military officials involved in past disaster responses said that help for Puerto Rico should have been ramped up much earlier. Russel L. Honore, the retired lieutenant general appointed by a beleaguered President George W. Bush to take over the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the government needs to quickly move 50,000 troops to Puerto Rico.
“They need to scale up,” said Honore, who was widely praised for turning around the response to Katrina. During that relief operation, he said, “I had 20,000 federal troops. Not federal workers, federal troops.”
He added, “And Puerto Rico is bigger than Katrina.”
Even improvements in Puerto Rico seemed to beget more complications.
As officials tried to move more goods out of the main port in San Juan, the capital, they struggled to find drivers. Some trucking companies were low on diesel and had trouble acquiring more.
Some drivers lost their homes in the hurricane or simply could not be reached by phone.
So the government put out a call for truckers to send a text message to a hotline or simply show up at the convention center in San Juan, which has been converted into a command center for the government. Those who heeded the request were frustrated by what they found.
“They’re not letting us move at all,” said Danny Custodio, 37, who stood in the atrium of the convention center with his cousin Thursday afternoon. “We’re in a crisis. Just open up the port so I can get what I need to get and take it where I need to take it.”
Officials said some containers were sitting in the port because businesses, many still shuttered, were not in a position to receive supplies. Warehouses were damaged. And apart from generators, no power source was available to keep perishable goods cold.
About 600 containers did leave the port Wednesday, up from 450 a day earlier, said Omar Marrero, executive director of the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. He said he expected that as many as 1,200 could leave Thursday.
Throughout Puerto Rico, residents say they have yet to see their mayors distribute aid. In Ponce, people who waited overnight to buy an allotted two small bags of ice had to repeat the act each night because, without electricity, the previous day’s purchases had melted.
Hector Marquez, 66, said he goes to the ice line every day at 3 a.m. to be ready for its 7 a.m. opening. “Have you seen a single tarp over anyone’s house? People lost their roofs. Where are the tarps?” Marquez said. “They haven’t brought anything here.”
He rattled off a list of what he could not find: bottles of water, gas canisters to light stoves, food.
“Whatever little bit you had is running out,” he said. “The trucks with food do not come. No trucks come with anything. You go to the supermarket, and it’s almost empty.”
Perez, in Ponce, said people were in “inhumane conditions, almost without food, without drinking water.”
She said that “when I went up in the police car, they said that in a week, this is the first agency that will come up here to see what the status is.”
Some humanitarian aid still cannot even get to Puerto Rico.
Freddy Rolon, 43, arrived Wednesday with fellow firefighters from Texas, but the donated water and other supplies that aid organizations had gathered were still in Florida, he said.
“We have hundreds of containers that are full, ready to get to the island,” Rolon said. “All that is ready to deploy.”
Administration officials conceded that the response appeared to be sluggish and inadequate, but they defended its efforts and blamed news media accounts for exaggerating the situation.
“I understand the coverage, in some cases, is giving the appearance that we’re not moving fast enough,” Thomas P. Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, told reporters outside the White House. He said there was “an understandable degree of devastation” and a sense that “there’s nothing that can happen fast enough.”
“But what I will tell you is that we are mobilizing and marshaling the resources of the United States of America in a way that is absolutely professional, fast and adequate to meet the needs,” Bossert added.
Later, at the daily White House briefing, Bossert deflected the criticism coming from elected officials and others by promising that they would be “blown away” when they saw “the full totality” of the government’s response.
“This is textbook,” he insisted, “and it’s been done well.”