WASHINGTON – Two U.S. Navy ships, National Guard, Air National Guard, Reserve troops and Army helicopters are providing aid to Puerto Rico. But questions are mounting over whether the U.S. is doing enough for its territory and people, who are American citizens.
To date, the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and dock landing ship Oak Hill have “conducted eight medical evacuations, 148 airlifts and delivered 44,177 [pounds] of relief supplies and cargo to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” U.S. Northern Command said in a statement.
U.S. forces have also restored a mobile communications tower at St. Thomas International Airport to enable the airport to receive additional aircraft to evacuate residents.
The amphibious assault ship Wasp has been conducting similar rescues in Dominica, but that ship will be departing the region to head to the Pacific, where it will eventually relieve the Bonhomme Richard, a Navy official said.
Approximately 2,600 U.S. military personnel and National Guard members are currently involved in Hurricane Maria relief efforts, the Pentagon said.
Currently, more than 700 Air National Guard airmen are deployed to Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to support relief efforts.
Air Force reservists assigned to the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, have established operations to support humanitarian relief efforts on the islands of Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Croix. Reserve medical personnel, and aircrews from multiple locations, are currently staged at MacDill. The first medical evacuation flight departed Sunday..
Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, was in Puerto Rico Monday assessing its needs, said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning.
U.S. Transportation Command is now sending eight UH-60 helicopters from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to the airport to increase aid distribution to the island.
But the dire conditions on Puerto Rico has raised questions as to whether that level of support is enough. Approximately 3.4 million Americans live on Puerto Rico.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., promised that Washington will make sure Puerto Ricans will “have what they need.”
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said more Pentagon resources are needed for search-and-rescue operations, maintaining order, and help with transportation. The California Democrat also said that the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands “deserve to know that their government will be there for them, without question or hesitation.”
Most of Puerto Rico has no electricity or cell phone capabilities because of Hurricane Maria’s damage to the electrical grid and cell towers. There are long lines for food and water.
President Donald Trump, who was quick to visit both Florida and Texas, even as officials were still dealing with the crisis, has not yet visited Puerto Rico or mentioned the island’s disaster since last week. On Monday, reporters asked why the president sent a dozen tweets criticizing NFL players instead of focusing on the crisis.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders rejected the notion that the president is ignoring Puerto Rico’s needs.
“We’ve done unprecedented movement in terms of federal funding to provide for the people of Puerto Rico,” Sanders said. “We’ll continue to do so and continue to do everything we can possibly do under the federal government to provide assistance.”
On Sunday, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton questioned why the Navy had not sent its massive hospital ship, the Comfort, to support the island.
Navy officials said the Comfort is still ported in Norfolk, Va., and no request for its presence had been made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or U.S. Northern Command, which is coordinating the U.S. response. The Navy officials said there was no reason, such as a maintenance need, that the Comfort would not be able to reach Puerto Rico if requested.
“DOD is postured to support Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as much as we can,” Manning said. “We are going to make sure they have what they need.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."